Never Visit a College Campus with Your Parents Again Thanks to Google

Why the rise of online interviews and tours is good and bad news for college applicants.

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It was a college road trip on steroids: when I was a high school junior, my parents and I visited 12 college campuses in less than two weeks. The three of us were in a car together for hours at a time driving up and down the East Coast, spreadsheets and check lists in hand, tempers slightly less in hand.

But that trip wasn’t just a symbolic ritual. Which applications I filled out the following fall were largely determined by what I saw during those two weeks. Choosing a college might seem like the most calculated, data-driven decision you make, but take a few tours and you realize it can be as much about instinct as anything else. The weather, what the tour guide is wearing, the mood of students in a dining hall and everything else you can’t put in a list of pros and cons can change your mind.

I crossed one school off my list simply because of a comment from the tour guide who said it got so cold one winter that he spent an entire month walking indoors through tunnels from his dorm to class, never venturing outside. A college that had been low on my list wooed me with a handsome, smart, future Rhodes Scholar tour guide. I visited the school I eventually attended on a rainy day and deemed it too depressing a place to spend four years. I went back on a sunny day and after coffee with a current student, I changed my mind and applied there early. (But maybe that was meant to be: according to one study, a student is actually 9% more likely to eventually enroll in a college they see on a rainy day because the gloomy weather makes them focus more on the academics.)

Would I have traded those two intense weeks for a remote video tour of a school? Nope. But if Google has anything to say about it, mine might be the last generation to think that this American rite of passage is essential. Instead more families may opt for virtual info sessions and interviews whose popularity will be fueled both by the comfort teens have with technology and by financial considerations.

The downturn in the economy has increased the financial burden of traveling to every school for a college visit. Driving or flying across the country means more than paying for transportation and hotel rooms—it means parents taking time off work to trek from one campus to another. And the alternatives for accessing information are problematic. “Students are often misinformed by anonymous websites and hearsay and can be intimidated by information like college rankings,” says Lisa Jiang at Google+ Higher Ed. “High schools across the country face a shortage of college counselors…And universities also face financial barriers, as admissions travel budgets are cut and time and cost prohibit admissions officers from reaching every high school across the country.”

So Google is taking the college admissions process virtual. A recent Google study found that nine in 10 students use the Internet to research higher education institutions. “Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” says Jiang. “Google+’s goals in the higher education space are closely aligned with that mission which is to work with colleges and universities to help students access information about the college application process.”

Essentially, Google wants to be your new college counselor (and promote the floundering Google+ products to teenagers in the process).

Google+ launched Google Hangouts, a multi-person video chat platform, in the summer of 2011 and Google+ Hangouts On Air (Google Hangouts that can be publicly streamed so that anyone can watch) in the spring of 2012. In April 2012, Duke University worked with Google to stream eight different Google Hangout On Air sessions where current students talked about a certain theme—academics, student research, spirit and sports, etc.—while prospective students watched and posed questions. The most popular of those Hangouts brought in over 1000 viewers—big numbers for a first time endeavor.

“We heard feedback from students who later enrolled that the video chats made campus more accessible. They were able to ask questions to the students that they wouldn’t necessarily ask an admissions officer,” says Cara Rousseau, social media manager at Duke University. “Students who became freshman at Duke said it did influence their decision.”

Google then partnered with Princeton Review for the fall of 2012 to conduct a series of discussions with Princeton Review editors and college admissions officers called “Ask Admissions.” Admissions officers at different schools answered questions about applications and the schools. The Princeton Review editors conducted panels and, in the spring, fielded questions about how students could choose the best fit school among the places they had been admitted—all using Google tools.

After a successful trial year, already a couple dozen universities—including Bowdoin College, University of Kentucky, Colorado State University, University of North Carolina, University of Notre Dame and Bucknell University—have partnered with Google to experiment with using Hangouts for info sessions, private Hangouts where admissions officers or alumni could conduct one-on-one interviews and communities where admitted students can connect with one another.

The main aim of the project is to bring the feel of campus to those students who can’t otherwise visit. “I’m on a trip to Seattle right now, and I don’t get a chance to reach all the students in Seattle that would like to know about Bowdin,” says Scott Meiklejohn, dean of admissions and financial aid at Bowdoin. “I could imagine that out there there is a really talented student in Helena, Montana where we may not send someone on a regular basis. I hope this would be a good way to reach people who can’t find their way to Maine.”

And the Hangouts—especially with students and professors—can afford students opportunities that they wouldn’t have on campus. “It’s kind of hard at an open house with 1000 kids there to engage in that level of substance with a professor,” says Rob Franek, senior VP and publisher at the Princeton Review. “But it’s totally possible on a channeled platform like Google+.” And at the University of Kentucky, they find that Google Hangouts are especially helpful for international students who would never otherwise have access to such resources.

So why bother making the trip to Kentucky or North Carolina or Maine if you can get most of the information you would need through remote video chat?

First, over video chats students are only going to see what admissions officers want them to see—the best aspects of campus. Without visiting, a student may not realize that all the bars in the small college town close at 11 or that there are no vegan options in the dining hall.

And as it turns out, most schools with virtual tours still encourage real-life visits. “We try to tell prospective students that the first and most important aspect of making your college decision is visiting and making sure it’s the right fit,” says Tyler Gayheart, director of communications and technology at the University of Kentucky. “It allows you to get the wide breadth of interactions and experiences that allow you to make an informed decision.”

Students aren’t the only ones profiting from the campus visit. Schools benefit too. “I think that most universities know that our yield rate on students who actually visit campus is higher than those who don’t,” says Rousseau at Duke.

Google hopes to up the number of matriculating students who don’t visit campus. But while Google may offer enormous benefits to teens who can’t make the trip, the campus visit, for better or worse, isn’t dead yet.