Technology is ending a traditional rite of passage for many parents and their college-bound students, who are choosing to visit college campuses virtually instead of spending their weekends driving from school to school.
Officials at most schools still encourage people to visit campuses in person, since not even the most interactive app can give a true picture of what it’s really like to attend school anywhere. However, for people strapped for time, or whose finances don’t allow them to gas up the car every weekend, travel around, and pay expensive hotel bills, a new generation of interactive virtual college apps and websites allow those long-distance drives to be made from the comfort of a laptop or smartphone.
The apps are also a boon for colleges hoping to attract out-of-state students to their campuses. With more high school graduates applying to more colleges, the competition is steep for students, particularly those from out-of-state who must pay higher tuition and need more services than students whose families live closer by.
“Students now are applying to more colleges, there’s more competition for admission and they want to compare financial aid packages,” Audrey Kahane, a college admissions counselor in the Los Angeles area, told the Los Angeles Times. “But when you’re applying to so many schools, it’s just not practical to go out and visit every one, especially when they’re all across the country.”
Schools are also finding that once a student has paid a virtual visit to their campus and liked what they’ve seen, they’re likely to visit the campus at least once in person.
With the ever-expanding collection of apps and virtual websites, there is almost no reason for Mom and Dad to pack up the mini van and hit the road — until they want to. Here’s some choices when it comes to virtual tours:
YouVisit, described as combining Google Street View with a student narrator, uses 360-degree images to guide visitors on a tour of the college, while a virtual student gives information on lecture halls, dormitories or just about any other fact of student life.
The website is free and very user-friendly, but it doesn’t include all colleges. YouVisit already includes 150 universities and colleges, and about 2 million people have used the site to virtually tour colleges since it launched four years ago. Because schools pay a minimum of $3,000 a year to include their campuses, not all colleges have signed on yet. However, with the site’s users climbing, more colleges hoping to compete for the top students likely will sign on.
Abi Mandelbaum, the site’s founder, claims some schools that use his site have seen their in-person visits go up my as much as 30 percent. Colleges that use the site report getting inquiries from people from thousands of miles away, and the service allows schools to use online tours to stand out among their competition. Mandelbaum said many of those visits are resulting in applications from out-of-state students who never step foot on the campus before their first day of school.
CampusTours offers detailed maps and videos so students can visit the campuses from computers and smartphones. Unlike usual online school marketing, though, the maps also include details about the community around the colleges, including historical features, hiking trails and much more.
CampusTours president Chris Carson says traditional college sites don’t give a whole picture of what the school’s culture is like, and his company’s videos, including interviews with current students, provides a look at sports, clubs, and Greek organizations, to name a few.
ECampusTours differs from many other virtual college sites because it is free to all eligible two-year or four-year schools. The site is offered through Edsouth, a nonprofit corporation that provides services for students, families and schools across the country. Colleges may take part regardless of whether they have a business relationship with Edsouth.
The website, which features campus tours of more than 1,200 college campuses, not only lets students see what the college looks like, but connects to college websites where users can arrange personal visits. It also offers college planning information about choosing a school, financial aid, career exploration, and student loans and also offers a free scholarship search to find money for college.
Quad2Quad doesn’t really offer virtual tours, but acts a virtual travel assistant for people who are really loading up the car and heading out, making those in-person tours easier on parents and students alike.
The app, available for $5 for Apple’s iOS, includes a database of 74 of the most frequently-visited U.S. schools, with another 300 to be added over the next year. It provides correct dates and times for tours and information sessions, including an alert system to tell the user when offices aren’t open, or if a school requires reservations before visiting, so visitors can avoid the cost of a trip and the embarrassment of arriving at a school that isn’t ready to talk with them.
Quad2Quad also lets visitors know the routine details that can make a college visit turn into a royal pain. For example, it takes the questions out of knowing where to park or if visitors need permits, or where to go once you get on a sprawling college campus.
The company offers a free intro app that includes five colleges and a sample itinerary in the Boston area, but people who buy the full version will be able to map out itineraries for visits at several schools, taking the guesswork out of a stressful day.
This fall, Quad2Quad also plans to add a social networking program, so visiting students can check in with other prospective students from different high schools, or connect with on-campus “ambassadors” before they actually travel to the school.
Despite the numbers of these and other virtual assistance programs available, it’s probably still best for students to pay at least one in-person visit to the college of their choice before signing up for classes, officials maintain. After all, colleges, like any other business, will put their best features out for public consumption, and students who choose a school based entirely on a virtual tour may arrive to find the buildings aren’t so new, the students aren’t so friendly, and the atmosphere not necessarily to their liking.
However, the virtual tour sites do give parents and students the opportunity to save money and time — both of which they’ll need an ample supply of once they start those college years. ♦