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College Counseling, Rebooted

Back in high school, I was assigned to a college counselor who really knew her stuff. Mrs. Frazier had a cozy office with big windows, a shelf full of college guides, and—most important—a lot of time to spend advising students. She kept this procrastinator in line.

Many students never know a Mrs. Frazier, however, and that’s a major problem for colleges. Without the right guidance, students might end up on the wrong campus—or on none at all. They might not learn about the high-school courses to take, the deadlines to meet, and the forms to complete until it’s too late. And they might go on thinking that they can’t afford to attend any college.

Like many problems in higher education, however, the counseling gap’s inviting innovation. As part of The Chronicle’s “College, Reinvented” package this week, I wrote about ways in which college counseling is going high-tech. “Just as learning is now a hybrid of face-to-face and virtual interactions,” I wrote, “the transmission of college know-how is fast becoming a blended enterprise.”

In the piece, I described how Eric Felix, an admissions counselor at the University of San Diego, helped start Open Access College Advising, which provides free one-on-one counseling, via Skype, to low-income and first-generation students. I also mentioned “Mission: Admission,” a Facebook game developed at the University of Southern California; in the game, high-school students learn about the admissions process by guiding their avatars through deadlines and other hurdles on the path to college. And I described CollegeSnapps, a free, interactive mobile app designed to lead students through the application process (“Because the pitfalls on the path to student success outpace the capacity of a human advisor,” the CollegeSnapps Web site says).

Donald E. Fraser Jr., a former college counselor who helped created the app, doesn’t want to put counselors out of business. On the contrary, he hopes that the CollegeSnapps dashboard feature, which would allow counselors to monitor students’ progress, can help them do their jobs more effectively.

Behind this and other technological innovations designed to help more students get to college, Mr. Fraser sees a common theme: the human beings known as college counselors can do only so much on their own. Although a slew of community-based organizations now provide college counseling to students, even the best of them must confront the limitations of scale.

“A CBO might be doing yeoman’s work for 70 students, and that’s great, but only some students are getting served,” says Mr. Fraser, who’s also director of education for the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “The larger question here is, How do we find a way to provide answers to questions, to provide the information that students are entitled to?”

A similar question propelled the creation of Zinch Prep earlier this year. Students who register on Zinch’s Web site now have access to free test prep and step-by-step instructions for applying to college, including reminders about deadlines. The Web site also features video “episodes” in which college advisers discuss the basics of applying to college, the components of the application, and writing a personal statement.

Students can also submit questions. Some are answered in video form by Bob Patterson, a former director of admission at Stanford University who’s now the director of college outreach for Zinch. The idea, he says, is to build a platform that encourages interaction.

All of these ideas have their limitations. Mr. Felix, who co-founded the virtual-counseling Web site, worries about reaching students who don’t have computers. A well-designed video game can instruct, but it can’t answer a question that pops into a student’s head. Many students have smartphones, but not all of them do. And even the coolest Web sites and video can’t build a college-going culture where it’s lacking.

Nonetheless, some experts see promise in approaches that allow students to transcend the walls of their schools, the confines of their communities. In the years to come, technology might just redefine how—and where—college counseling happens for many students.

“Counselors don’t want to cede any turf to anybody, but we have to acknowledge things that might be effective,” says Patrick J. O’Connor, associate dean of college counseling at Cranbrook Kingswood Upper School, in Michigan. “And technology is underutilized in the college-admissions process.”

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