Colleges and universities that once simply wrangled with full mailboxes during application deadline time are now scrambling with full in-boxes.
Online applications are now widespread. At some colleges, admissions officers expect them to eclipse their regular-mail counterparts.
Charles Howard, dean of admissions for the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind., said that the 1,650-student school receives 38 percent of its applications via the Internet.
"We're three to four years away from every application coming in online," he said. "The days of the paper application are going to end, I think."
Jamie Highsmith, lead counselor at Central High School in San Angelo, Texas, has seen her own students increasingly turn to computers to apply for college.
"I think they believe it's a time-saver for them and it's something easier to do than keep up with actual paper documents and then meeting a mail deadline," she said. "If they have to fill out a big paper thing anymore, they don't want to do it."
At the University of Colorado at Boulder, the admissions office last year received 5,580 applications online before it cut off applications in the summer. This year, they've received 5,921 so far. It's more than one-third of the 15,000 applications they've received. They expect to receive 20,000 total applications.
Barbara Schneider, the school's executive director of admissions, loves the cyber-applications, which she can upload directly into the system.
"It's so much easier," she said.
Students who send online applications to the school receive an e-mail within two days notifying them that they've received it - a shorter period than those who send applications by regular mail.
Mary Lou Bates, dean of admissions and student aid at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., expects more online applications. Last fall's anthrax scare caused some students to trust e-mail over regular mail, she said.
Joyce Smith, executive director of the National Association for College Admission Counseling in Alexandria, Va., said many colleges are reporting an increase in applications partially because of the online application phenomenon. The format's convenience has made students who once applied for three to five colleges apply now for 10 to 15.
"Students feel comfortable sending college applications online," she said. Although initially some students would print out the application online and then mail it, now they're pressing the "send" button without hesitation.
Colleges and universities are responding to the trend by studying whether to recruit students online instead of sending direct mail, and some are also sending e-mail telling students they've been accepted.
But the trend isn't without its drawbacks.
In January, dozens of Harvard University applicants did not receive an e-mail telling them whether they had been admitted. The problem was blamed on problems with America Online.
And Smith has concerns about privacy. While colleges and universities aren't likely to share or abuse data, some Web sites advertising for scholarships might be bogus.
"You just never know," she said. "We always make sure to advise families to be careful about what they complete online - to make sure it is a reliable company."
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