WASHINGTON (AP) - Applying to college by computer was only natural for Mark Garneau.
The 18-year-old from Closter, N.J., spends two or three hours a day exploring the Internet. Virginia Tech, one of the most heavily wired campuses, had the most detailed Web page - and an online application form.
He could apply without leaving his perch or dragging out a typewriter, a foreign practice for many youngsters yet still required at many institutions.
"The other ones, I had to think about keeping them neat and typed and stuff like that," said Garneau, now an incoming freshman at Virginia Tech.
Knowing there's a whole generation of Web-literate teen-agers out there, universities are struggling to meet the demand for online applications in time for the college-hunting season this fall.
"Clearly, the paper application is doomed," said the summary of a poll released last winter by the Art & Science Group Inc., a Baltimore research company that found a sharp rise in Web access among high school seniors. More than one-third said they would rather apply online, up from 11 percent a year earlier.
Going online saves paper, lets institutions hear from a wider range of applicants and lets them promote themselves as technologically advanced, the colleges say.
But the new world also has created some special headaches for universities.
Sophisticated probers who look at a college's Web site also can often gain access to such things as campus crime reports, faculty ratings or other information through unofficial channels.
And students are sometimes bombarding faculty with questions by e-mail, creating a burden that not all colleges or faculty might be able to handle.
"Colleges are not geared up now to deal with students accessing this unofficial information," said Kenneth E. Hartman, director of elementary and secondary programs for the College Board and author of "The Internet Guide for College-Bound Students."
Despite such concerns, universities in the past year also have hired services that let students learn about several universities or campuses from one Web location, apply to several and then charge the application fee over the computer. They also offer links to scholarship information and other services.
Big companies such as IBM have jumped into this business. IBM announced last month it would sell to its university customers the CollegeNet service, a product of Universal Algorithms Inc. software company in Portland, Ore.
CollegeNet most recently signed on the State University of New York system. The 64-campus system had been online on its own since April 1996. But though applications jumped from 100 in the first season to 800 so far this year, the New York system wanted even more.
"This further enhances our marketing objectives to reach out to more out-of-state and international students," said Scott W. Steffey, vice chancellor for university relations in Albany.
And in November, 23 campuses of the California State University system will launch CSUMentor, an online service run by XAP Corp of Los Angeles, under a four-year contract worth more than $900,000.
The system hopes to snag youngsters in the ninth grade or earlier and guide them through the courses they need to enter college - instead of playing catch-up with remedial courses once there.
"One problem is students who are ill-prepared for college work, and we wind up spending our scarce resources on remedial education programs," said project director Russell Utterberg, in an interview from Long Beach.
Web explorers can also search CollegeEdge, CollegeScape and CollegeView. And the College Board and Peterson's Education offer services.
The University of Maryland system also went online over the summer for applications to its 10 undergraduate institutions, said John Lippincott, an associate vice chancellor at system headquarters in Adelphi.
Already, he noted, the school has received applications from Kuwait, Latvia and Taiwan.
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