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Out of the Gym, onto the Desktop

Online college fairs are the cutting edge in recruiting. Are they right for your institution?
University Business, Jul 2009

Online college fairs can reach more students than fairs held in the high school gym. The experience offered by the three main vendors varies considerably.

IN THE QUEST TO REACH as many students as possible, admissions officers in higher ed are leaving no pixel unturned.

“Colleges are no longer limited to barriers of infrastructure,” says Megan Stewart, director of higher education for Adobe. Taking advantage of the wider availability of broadband internet access, and tapping into the Millennial Generation’s love of all things online, the traditional college fair has made the leap from the high school gym to the virtual world.

Online college fairs offer an experience somewhere between a website and Second Life, the online world populated by digital versions of people and buildings. The big players in the virtual college fair world are CollegeWeekLive and EducationXpo, the latter a offering. Considering the first CollegeWeekLive event took place in November 2007 and EducationXpo opened a year later, it’s safe to say the technology is still cutting edge. The new kid on the block is VirtualCollegeFairs, which launched last summer and offers a more traditional navigation experience.

For the big two, attendees see either a convention center or a college quad, and they navigate to the various areas of the “fair” with their mouse, rather than steering an avatar. VirtualCollegeFairs presents a static page with panels for the various participating higher education institutions, making access to their information a little more direct.

VirtualCollegeFairs is set up as “a permanent resource for students with college booths that are active all the time,” explains CEO Andrew Stewart. Someone at each participating institution must download special chat software that alerts staff members when a student is in the booth. Stewart suggests distributing the software to student representatives as well so someone is available to chat with after-hour visitors.

Booth content can also be added through RSS feeds from blogs, Flickr, and Facebook, as well as links to the institution’s main website. With packages starting at $500 per year, VirtualCollegeFairs is perhaps the most approachable in terms of price.

CollegeWeekLive and EducationXpo offer more robust student experiences and have pricing to match, with packages starting at $1,500 and $1,000, respectively. Their fairs are conducted as live events on set days, with a full archive available after the fair closes up until the next live fair. So admissions staff members must be online when the live fair is open to be available to students who want to chat.

In addition to the chat function, a booth can be loaded with videos, MP3s, and PDF versions of the school’s program guide and viewbook, as well as links back to the institution’s main website.

Adding value for students and parents, fair coordinators also bring in speakers on topics ranging from writing a good admissions essay to applying for financial aid. “At a live fair a student would not get to hear from a Department of Education representative about filling out the FAFSA,” points out Robert Rosenbloom, CEO of CollegeWeekLive. The live events often include Q&A sessions with these experts, which are then available for viewing in the archive.

For colleges and universities, online fairs offer a way to leverage digital assets created for other websites and allow interaction with students out of their normal recruiting area. “If a student finds a college’s video on YouTube, there is nothing there to easily turn it into a lead for the school,” explains Stewart. “On our site the student clicks a button and sends their information.” The profile information students provide when registering for the sites acts as a virtual business card they can easily send to schools.

“These programs allow students on the other side of the country and internationally to learn about your school,” say Gil Rogers, associate director of admissions at the University of New Haven (Conn.). As an example, he points to a student from California who applied and enrolled after visiting the UNH booth during a CollegeWeekLive fair.

During the CollegeWeekLive fair in March, Rogers said they had over 500 booth visits, engaged with many students via chat, and had many attendees download information without engaging. Because his office actively promoted participation in the fair, some of those visitors were already in their database. While virtual fair organizers advertise the events and publicize the names of participating institutions, admissions officers have found that doing their own promotions can help increase traffic as well. E-mail blasts to prospects, links on the admissions homepage, and even flyers posted at live events are all viable options.

Rogers sees the online fairs as a good option for colleges and universities that may have limited monetary or staff resources. Reducing the need to travel around the country also saves wear and tear on staff members. “There are only so many high schools a counselor can visit during the fall,” he points out. At this time, however, admissions offices seem to be adding virtual fairs to their schedules while also maintaining participation in the traditional fairs.

Rosenbloom notes that traditional college fairs can’t reach all students in high school because large fairs are usually held in densely populated areas. Most institutions also don’t send recruiters overseas to court international students, making the online fairs a good option for extending reach beyond an institution’s backyard.

“In terms of the number of international and national students, I would imagine it would be hard to get that geographic mix at one time,” says Greg Grauman, acting director of admissions at American University (D.C.). The fairs are a way not only to find new prospects but also serve as another touch point with students who have already expressed interest. During the March event, Grauman’s staff met with over 600 students, but he says it is too soon to tell how many of them will wind up applying.

'There are only so many high schools a counselor can visit during the fall.' -Gil Rogers, University of New Haven (Conn.)

Grauman says the staff was comfortable in the fair environment because they have been using their own online chat function for several years.

“If there is overlap [in attendance], it shows our communications are keeping their interest,” says Emily Engelschall, director of undergraduate recruitment at the University of California, Riverside. She admits to some trepidation about inviting prospects to an arena where competing schools are visible, but adds, “I thought it was worth it in the end.”

The most recent fair brought in 500 contacts for her university who will be added to the communication schedule and invited to campus. She says the goal of any fair is to get those contacts to visit campus, as that greatly increases enrollment numbers.

Engelschall notes a difference in attitude between live and online fair attendees. “With the in-person fairs, we find students are being funneled into the room and forced to attend by a counselor,” she says. “But with the virtual fairs, they want to be attending.”

“I think the fairs are a helpful information source available to students,” says Matthew Greene, a principle at Howard Greene & Associates, a firm that advises students and their families on selecting the right college. While physical college fairs can be overwhelming for students, online fairs allow them to explore at their own pace.

Another advantage of the online fairs is the elimination of stealth visitors. Unlike an in-person fair, where a student can grab a pamphlet while walking by without interacting, the online fairs require visitors to complete a profile before entering. A variety of reports, including number of visitors, links visited, and other in-booth activities, are provided to the admissions staff for activity during the virtual fair as it happens, as well as any hits on the archive.

As useful as the online fairs are, admissions teams shouldn’t throw away their suitcases just yet. Admissions officers, and even CEOs of companies that run online college fairs, admit traditional gym fairs aren’t going away anytime soon. Rosenbloom says there is a place for both types, with the online fairs providing better access to information for a larger audience.

Although the technology is improving every year, and faster internet access will improve the attendee experience, the human factor is still a concern. Engelschall says she sensed that some students were frustrated during a chat because they had no way of knowing the university representative was chatting with multiple students simultaneously. She increased the number of people assigned to the booth for subsequent fairs.

Despite viewing online fairs positively, Engelschall isn’t sure future participation will be possible. “The out-of-state [recruiting] initiative flatlined. ... With the budget nightmares we’re having, we have to rethink how we’re spending money.”

Politics are another factor to consider. “As a public institution funded by the state it wouldn’t be a good message to pull out of [in-person] college fairs,” she adds.

It is also important to balance the cost with the college’s overall mission and recruiting area. “I am not sure that they are particularly well suited for visual and performing arts students, who are more likely to audition,” says Stephanie McCaine, director of admissions at Purchase College, part of the State University of New York network. She questions whether online fairs can provide the personal feedback those students desire. Her skepticism might be justified, since her attendance at the first CollegeWeekLive fair in 2007 didn’t result in any applicants. “The pricing is hard for a public institution,” she says.

McCaine also stresses the importance of face-to-face interactions, which give recruiters a chance to judge a student’s body language and adjust the conversation accordingly.

However, she sees the advantage of an online fair over traveling to an area that is not traditionally a big sender. “If a school is unable to travel to Anchorage, Alaska, it is a chance for exposure to that area,” she says. She hasn’t given up on the virtual world entirely: Her staff regularly participates in online chat sessions hosted by the SUNY central office.

“[Online fairs] will become part of the tool kit a university will have to achieve their objective,” says Boyce. “As much as I love the virtual environment, it can’t replace a handshake.”