Virtual College Fairs

How big a hall would you need to bring together some 50,000 students and their parents, as well as college admissions officers, guidance counselors and financial aid experts? No room required: the crowd participated in CollegeWeekLive, a virtual two-day college fair that built on a  smaller "test" event held last fall.

For the event's organizers, the point was to go to the kids already congregate.  "This is where students of the millennial generation live—online," says Robert Rosenbloom, CEO of the digital media startup, PlatformQ, that developed the online event. "So we saw an opportunity to create a virtual fair that would bring students and college admissions personnel together in an efficient manner, in a market where the audience is wired and the information is rapidly changing."

Virtual fairs aren't exactly new. Companies like IBM and Cisco have increasingly participated in online trade fairs in recent years while Reuters and other businesses have set-up permanent shops in Second Life. College fairs, however, are relatively new.

But they're every bit as user friendly and technologically sophisticated as their corporate cousins. CollegeWeekLive, for example, was set up to look like a bold colorful version of an actual convention center, complete with plasma screens, indoor gardens, and escalators. Users could click on banners in the "lobby" to visit different areas of the fair or to open separate windows for the interactive features-chats with current students, interviews with private college prep consultants, and presentations by young career professionals explaining how they survived the whole process. To maintain the virtual reality of the event, small digital people milled about in the background as the user moved from lecture-style presentations in an auditorium to individual colleges' booths set up in a main hall.

"This isn't just creating 3D booths in an exhibition hall so you can chat with an admissions person, get information about student life, and apply online. In addition to all of that, there's the digital media piece. We're bringing all of this content together, streaming live video interactions with young professionals, experts, admissions officers all in one place-and allowing students and parents to ask questions of these experts, which you would never be able to do in a physical environment," said Rosenbloom.

It helps too, that students and parents don't have to travel far to shop for schools. That cost savings, says Rosenbloom, can serve as a sort of economic equalizer for college applicants and their families. Likewise, admissions counselors point to the widened geographic scope of participants the technology allows as the main draw for them-as well as a general boost in the number of students they can reach.

According to an admissions official at Drexel, his school's booth got 270 visits at the virtual fair in the fall, which automatically gave him each student's contact information. Normally, he said, a busy physical fair might yield about 200 contacts.

Curt Cotter, the director of admissions at Sierra Nevada College, said he and his staff were "just juiced up about" connecting with students that a small liberal arts school like his would not normally get to reach. "It is the technology that students are using right now, so it's a way of reaching those students who would never think about Sierra Nevada College or Lake Tahoe. By doing it this way, we get an opportunity to meet students from New York to Guam. Plus, we've attended a lot of college fairs and find that students often don't get their questions answered-there are so many people, and it's so crowded, so noisy."

"Physical college fairs hit the biggest metropolitan markets," said Rosenbloom. "But when you start to go outside of those areas, they only hit roughly 10 to 15 percent of potential applicants." The company is considering expanding their offerings in the future to include events focused on specific educational topics, such as financial aid.

Despite the clear benefits, admissions officers warn against relying solely on online research to make your college selections. "[Technology] enables much broader access to information, which is always good thing. But there's also a lot of hype about it," said Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers. The real advantage of online research is that it allows prospective students look past the marketing of school's brochure, website and even its admissions officers. If you dig deep enough, you can browse course offerings and scan the student newspaper for the latest campus trials and tribulations. The more information you can get your hands on says Nassirian, the more educated your decision will be.