Nowadays, students looking to go to college complete almost the entire application process online: finding schools, sending in application forms and essays, and applying for financial aid, all with the click of a mouse or tap of a screen.
For many students, that’s made the process substantially easier. No more thumbing through encyclopedia-size college guides to figure out where to apply, and no more runs to the post office to meet mailing deadlines. By fall 2014, colleges and universities received 94% of their applications online, up from 68% in 2007 and 49% in 2005, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling (the NACAC).
But between getting into college and figuring out how to pay for it, a strictly online application process can become an additional challenge for teens who have limited financial means and minimal access to the internet. Students whose application fees are waived due to family incomes often end up only applying to a single college. Meanwhile, the average American teen applies to between four and six, according to Annie Reznik, executive director of the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success, a group of more than 90 colleges including Harvard, Princeton, Penn State, and the University of Arizona working to improve application success.
“This digital divide is essentially one more barrier that low-income students face,” says David Hawkins, NACAC’s executive director for educational content and policy.
That’s pushed colleges and education nonprofits to find ways to help students use the computer access they do have more efficiently and take advantage of the digital tools at their disposal, particularly smartphones.
Bridging The Digital Divide
A decade ago, research by Kristan Venegas, now professor of clinical education at the University of Southern California, found students without home internet struggling to piece together access to computers at school, friends’ houses, and internet cafes. In more recent research, she’s found that similar issues continue to affect students today, with many schools still not providing computer lab space devoted to college applications.
“The main themes are that there’s an increased reliance on using internet interfaces in order to apply for college, but there hasn’t been a significant change in terms of access to using printer-and-internet-enabled computers for college-going in schools,” she says.
Some things have improved, like more educational institutions now provide students with email addresses—one less thing they need to set up before beginning to apply. But they still need to be resourceful just to find a place to fill out their applications. That can mean applying to fewer schools or only to safe, local choices where friends are applying and the process is more familiar, Venegas says.
“Libraries have computers, but there’s a 30-minute limit,” she says. “Imagine having to fill out your college application in a 30-minute window.”
Once students are admitted to school, those without home internet may still struggle to meet deadlines to file additional forms for financial aid, housing, or course selection.
Many students do have smartphones, but depending on their data plans, they might still need to find public Wi-Fi to get online, Venegas says. And not all college and scholarships sites are optimized for viewing on smaller devices. Writing essays on a 5-inch screen can be effectively impossible.
But cellphones can also provide avenues for educational organizations to connect with prospective students. The College Board sends paper mailings to students, advising them on pulling together documents like tax returns and filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, a form necessary to apply for most need-based financial aid. Applicants can also text with human College Board advisers who can answer questions and help with the process.
“Some students might just ask, ‘What’s the deadline for the school that I’m applying to?” says Cassandra Larson, executive director of the College Board’s Access to Opportunity Department. “Some of them might get into quite deep questions about how to complete sections of the FAFSA based on their situation: ‘I live with one parent and not the other; whose tax information do I use?’”
The financial aid process, with its unfamiliar jargon and complex, high-stakes forms, can be a vexing issue for many students. Cecilia Rios-Aguilar, the director of the University of California, Los Angeles’ Higher Education Research Institute, is involved in a study of how access to a Facebook-based community app affects student performance at a group of community colleges. People who used the app had significantly higher GPAs, she says, but the researchers found that one of the most important uses of the app was finding guidance while applying for aid.
“We just analyzed the exchanges and we noticed that students needed a lot of procedural help and knowledge in how to navigate the financial aid process,” she says.
Making The Application Process More Centralized
The College Board is also experimenting with texts offering information about applying for aid and notifications for upcoming deadlines. The group also provides apps and mobile-friendly websites to aid in the college search, along with a mailed “starter list” of colleges students might want to take a look at.
“It’s based on where students like them from a similar zip code and test score successfully graduate from college,” says Larson. “One of the things that can be challenging on a smartphone is there are thousands of schools to choose from.”
The Common Application, a group of almost 700 colleges that accept a shared application form, also provides its own smartphone app called onTrack, which lets students track application deadlines and see what materials they still need to submit to participating colleges. The group is also adding integration with Google Drive, which is intended to help students upload application materials easily even if they don’t always work on the same computer.
“We know that many school districts have adopted Google Docs and Google Drive to enable their students and teachers to create, collaborate, and access shared documents from any internet connected device,” a spokesperson told Fast Company via email. “We also recognize that some students do not always have personal computers at home but use Google Drive on school or library computers to store their documents. We want to meet students where they are.”
The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, which offers its own shared application that’s accepted by its group of more than 90 schools, also includes what it calls a digital “locker,” which students can use to gather documents for applications. Reznik says the application is mobile-friendly enough for smartphones to handle applications, but many students will naturally do tasks like writing essays on computers in school or elsewhere, and the locker lets them save their work for later use.
The program also makes it easy for students to find out if they qualify for fee waivers by answering a few yes-or-no questions. When the University of Florida instituted the Coalition’s application, the number of waiver-eligible applicants grew substantially, Reznik says.
“They felt like they were serving the students of Florida better than ever before,” she says.