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Digital Divide Hits College-Admissions Process

Nora Fleming, Education Week

Digital Divide Hits College-Admissions ProcessWith an Internet connection and the click of a mouse, today's high school student has access to the world of higher education in fingertip reach.

A student can walk the grounds of a college campus a thousand miles away without setting foot in another zip code; get instantly matched with potential sources of scholarship funding without meeting with a counselor; and apply for multiple colleges through one online application without taking a trip to the post office.

But while technology is changing the face of college admissions, not all students are reaping the benefits of this virtual access to resources and information. For disadvantaged students lacking awareness or the digital-connection capabilities, entry into college may become harder to obtain than ever before.

"Our first-generation college students, even if they have computers with high-speed Internet, still struggle through the college-application process because they do not have the same frame of reference and knowledge base when it comes to things like college-search websites," said Darrell Sampson, a guidance counselor with the 182,000-student Fairfax County school district in Virginia.

"If you do not know what it is you are supposed to be looking for, or how the process is supposed to work," he said, "you are probably not going to be accessing the wealth of information available through technology meant to assist you."

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Online Growth

Those same challenges to accessing college admissions--such as seeking out digital resources and determining credibility of information--follow students when they enter college, educators say, where digital resources, and the expectation to use them, abound.

In 1998, the Common Application, a standard admissions application accepted at colleges and universities in place of their own, was made available online for the first time.

Today, the application, supported by a nonprofit organization of the same name, is accepted by more than 488 higher education institutions, and similar application sites, like XAP and the Universal College Application, have also emerged, dramatically changing the college-admissions process. The Common Application received 2.78 million applications last year from 663,000 students, as a student can now fill out one form and submit it to many colleges at once.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling, based in Arlington, Va., reports that the proportion of virtual applications increased from 56.5 percent in 2004 to 85 percent in 2011 of all those received at four-year institutions. Given the ease of applying, the applications in total at each institution have also substantially increased, while the acceptance rate has declined, stiffening competition.

Virtual portals also enable students to track the status of their applications.

But the application is not the only facet of college admissions that has become virtual. Students can now use a whole host of websites, such as Naviance, Cappex, and Zinch, to search for and get matched with potential schools, receive step-by-step guidance on admissions, take virtual tours, and practice for the SAT and the ACT.

Bob Patterson, the director of college outreach at Zinch, a website where students create a profile to get matched with colleges and scholarship money, says such sites help reach students through familiar, digital communication tools. That reduces stress in the admissions process, he said, particularly in high schools where the student-to-counselor ratio is very high.

According to NACAC, the national average is 421-to-1.

"The idea of instant feedback, online searches, and connecting with students in real time is the way higher education institutions will need to engage with the student of the future," said Mr. Patterson, who worked as an admissions counselor for 15 years at Stanford University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, among other universities, before going to Zinch.

It also can save institutions time, money, and other resources by interacting with students virtually, he added.

Games and Resources

The abundance of virtual information available on colleges, however, may overload many high school students as they struggle to process and track the myriad of resources on top of their high school responsibilities, some high school counselors say. That can be worrisome, given that students could miss out on the email and other social-media messages from colleges, which monitor students' responsiveness as a gauge of interest.

Those challenges can be even greater for disadvantaged or first-generation college-bound students who lack the resources some of their peers have.

A study released last year by the College Board found that while low- and high-income students alike had similar college aspirations, low-income students were more likely to be stressed by the admissions process and to say they were influenced by outside information and other people when making their college decisions.

Given those inclinations, some of the new digital admissions resources target disadvantaged students, who could likely benefit from their help.

A new virtual Facebook game targeting students at Title I schools, Mission Admission, for example, has students guide an avatar through the admissions process, learning key guidelines and strategies along the way. The goal of the game is to have low-income students build confidence through play that will help them apply and get into college, said Zoe Corwin, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California's Pullias Center for Higher Education in Los Angeles, which helped create the game.

"The websites out there tend to be text-heavy, and users are often passive. ... Students think they are being productive researching, and they are actually becoming more confused about taking the appropriate steps," said Ms. Corwin.

Other resources, though, while aimed at low-income students, have not always had the impact desired.

One college-assistance website, WeGotIn.net, shares successful applications to Ivy League institutions with its subscribers, both those who pay and those who get free access because of financial need. According to the site, the goal was to help low-income students by "shed[ing] light" on what was considered a high-quality application. But it found the bulk of its users tended to be students who already had considerable access to resources, with paying users exceeding requests for free access by more than 100-to-1.

Low-income and first-generation college students often face additional barriers, such as attending schools with understaffed guidance departments or having parents with little knowledge of admissions, that their higher-income peers do not face, said Nina Marks, a founder and the chief executive officer of Marks Education, a private college-counseling service based in Bethesda, Md. Between the lack of admissions savvy and exposure to the abundance of new digital resources, students can be overwhelmed navigating applications, she said.

Ms. Marks, whose services cost around $700 an hour, also started a nonprofit, Collegiate Directions, which provides free counseling services for selected first generation, low-income public school students from the junior year through the time they finish higher education.

One of Collegiate Directions' scholars, Ana Gabriela Coello, now a senior at the University of Maryland College Park, said she would have been "lost" without the supplementary guidance from the organization, which helped her through the admission steps, deadlines, and digital resources, especially while she lacked a computer at home--her situation during part of the process.

According to Ms. Coello, the challenges only increased, however, once she entered college, where she encountered those same hurdles daily, but didn't have the support system she had in secondary school.

Virtual Skills

Her sentiments echo the concerns of education leaders, who see the admissions challenge as part of a bigger problem: that of integrating digital-literacy instruction into schools, particularly high schools, with diverse student populations.

According to Mr. Sampson, the Fairfax County counselor, while many high school students have smartphones, lower-income students who lack home access to high-speed Internet and computers struggle not just with the admissions process, but also in doing their homework, such as research for papers.

Not learning those skills in high school can set students back in accessing college opportunities and surviving once they arrive on campus, many say.

Recognition of those differences in digital skills and exposure has some schools, organizations, and colleges trying to improve high school students' college pathways by improving their digital-literacy skills to help them in the admissions process and beyond. Alabama, Florida, and West Virginia are among the states that require students to complete online coursework to graduate from high school. Colleges are addressing digital-skill deficits by integrating technology remediation into their courses. And some school districts are working directly with higher education and other partners to improve the quality of digital instruction they provide.

The Federation for a Competitive Economy initiative in California, for example, works with two high-poverty, high-minority districts--the 42,000-student Riverside and the 52,000-student San Bernardino systems--in partnership with the University of California, Riverside, and local leaders to improve coursework requirements, provide supports outside school, and offer professional development to teachers, as part of a digital-literacy project to improve college and career options for needy students.

"To build a pathway for creating the most successful students, all educators should be communicating about expected competencies as students transition from kindergarten to college," said Pam Clute, the executive director of the federation and a mathematics professor at UC-Riverside. "We have to think about this as a K-20 strategy."

Special coverage on the alignment between K-12 schools and postsecondary education is supported in part by a grant from the Lumina Foundation, at www.luminafoundation.org.