A growing number of colleges are encouraging high school students to send in their applications by computer rather than by mail, concluding that it makes no sense in a heavily wired world to continue to ask applicants to fill out a form on a typewriter or by hand.
But many colleges are resisting the trend, with some admissions officials saying that online communication makes the process too quick and easy, adding to the number of students who file sloppy and ill-considered applications. Some officials also say they don't want to take a step that could put students without computers at a disadvantage.
In the Washington area, Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia recently announced that for the first time they are encouraging students to file their applications online rather than on paper, although they will accept both and treat them equally in admissions decisions. The University of Maryland first allowed students to apply online four years ago. Virginia Commonwealth University began encouraging the practice two years ago, and Johns Hopkins University did the same last year.
But many universities, including Georgetown and James Madison, still do not accept applications via computer.
Officials at Virginia Tech, which will note the preference for online applications in letters sent to prospective applicants, said they are taking the step in response to demands from high school students and their families.
"Many students and parents tell us that they no longer own a typewriter, but they do have a computer. They prefer the online application," said Karen E. Torgersen, director of undergraduate admissions at Virginia Tech. She said 15 percent of applications were submitted via the Internet last year, when the school did not encourage or discourage the practice, and she expects a significant increase this year.
Jack Blackburn, dean of admissions at U-Va., which did not allow such applications last year, predicts that 10 to 25 percent of undergraduates will apply online this year. At the University of Maryland at College Park, about 10 percent of last year's applications arrived via computer.
The majority of American colleges still do not accept applications over the Internet, but the number that do is growing rapidly, observers say. The move toward online applications "is a huge trend," said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the Washington-based American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. "It is probably the largest single kind of restructuring in the college application system."
It's a change that many educators don't like, however.
"It contributes to the ballooning number of applications students are able to file with less effort and less thought," said Sue Bigg, a private educational consultant who works with high school students.
Mary Spiegel, director of admissions at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn., which does not allow online applications, said she heard of one student who applied to 50 schools because of the speed and convenience of submitting the forms over the Internet. "If it is so darn easy to apply to colleges," she said, "students will start thinking, 'Let me throw a dozen more applications out there and see what I get.' "
Students who can apply with ease to many schools "will have more options to choose from in the spring, with more financial aid offers to compare," Spiegel said. "The less sophisticated student or the economically disadvantaged student gets shut out of this game."
Several college officials said they like paper applications because they can be more easily reviewed and proofread by high school counselors and parents before being sent. The students themselves often prefer the paper forms for that very reason, said some officials, disputing the notion that applicants are demanding online communication.
Bruce Poch, dean of admissions at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., said that as an experiment last year, he did not produce a printed application for transfer students, thinking they would all prefer to apply online. "I was honestly stunned by the demand to basically touch the real thing and receive via regular mail the printed application," he said.
Charles Deacon, dean of admissions at Georgetown, said many of the school's most serious applicants seem to prefer the traditional paper form. Some admissions officials said they have noted that online applicants appear to be less likely to complete their application by sending in transcripts and recommendations, which still must be done by mail.
A high school student applying online goes to the university's Web site, sets up an account with identifying codes and then fills out the application. The system usually allows students to save partially completed applications to finish later.
Jim Wolfston, president of CollegeNET Inc., the Portland, Ore.,-based company that set up the computerized application systems at Virginia Tech and U-Va., said he has 350 university customers who have established similar systems or plan to do so. Len Metheny, president of ApplyYourself, a computer systems company based in Fairfax, said he is working with 100 schools, including American University.
Officials at schools that use such systems say it saves them time because some of the information on a printed application has to be typed into the college's computer database anyway.
Most of the colleges that allow online applications have not gone so far as to state a preference for them. At some colleges, officials say they fear that such a move could lead some students to think that they will be at a competitive disadvantage if they send in a paper form.
"I don't understand how any college can announce that it prefers a particular kind of application but also indicate that others aren't at a disadvantage," said Lorne T. Robinson, dean of admissions and financial aid at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. "The mere statement that one mode is preferred over another sends an entirely different message."
Some admissions officers also worry that promoting online applications isn't fair to students without easy access to a computer.
"We still find many cases where a given student cannot use the computer since it may be housed in the principal's office or the library only," said Alan E. Young, director of school-college relations for the State University of New York in Albany.
Other college officials say that such concerns so far have proved unfounded.
"Increasingly we are seeing that even among the inner-city school kids in Chicago, many have e-mail addresses and access to the Web through their high school computer centers," said Brian Lynch, director of undergraduate admissions at DePaul University in Chicago, which allows online applications. "Typically there is fairly easy access to computers with Internet capabilities in public libraries."