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Colleges seeking recruits turn to student bloggers for unvarnished view of campus life
Michael Chandler is a college student who's had it with parking tickets at Ball State University.
"I swear that's where most of BSU's money comes from," Chandler groused recently on his blog. "They hand 'em out left and right, without a care in the world."
Far from getting irritated, Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., welcomes the blog. The school promotes the interactive online diary and several other unfiltered student blogs directly on its home page as a recruiting tool.
Colleges seeking a competitive edge are increasingly enlisting and sometimes paying student bloggers to chronicle their lives online.
The results run the gamut from insightful to boring, but the goal is the same: to find a new way to win the attention of the MySpace generation.
"We found it a much freer, less constricting, far more believable way of letting prospective students glimpse what was going on on campus," said Seth Allen, dean of admissions at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania.
Universities balance giving the bloggers the freedom to speak their mind while maintaining some control over content.
Some, such as Dickinson, read postings before allowing them on the Web site to guard against offensive language. Others, like Ball State, say that defeats the purpose.
Prospective students can easily compare students' thoughts with comments on online networking sites like MySpace or Facebook.com, said Nancy Prater, Ball State's Web coordinator.
"If that doesn't match what they're saying on our blogs, there's a disconnect," Prater said.
Colleges from Colgate University in upstate New York, a small liberal arts campus, to the University of Texas, one of the country's largest universities, now include links to student bloggers on their home pages.
The emergence of the blogs is the next step in the evolution of admissions recruiting, said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
First came glossy brochures. Next, huge Web sites packed with official information. Now, relatively uncensored blogs promote elements of university life, from the climbing wall at the rec center to the size of the rolls in the dining hall, he said.
Chris Smith, a sophomore at Ohio Dominican University, posts lively weekly descriptions of his life as a college baseball player. He gets $20 a posting and has been unafraid to hide his preference for playing ball over going to class or criticizing professors for assigning too much homework.
"Being in class is literally the last place you want to be at this time of the year," he wrote on April 12.
Ohio Dominican, a small Roman Catholic college in Columbus, is among schools that decided not to allow blog readers to post comments out of fear of compromising online security.
Traditionalists say that's not a real blog. More importantly, experts say, the best student blogs demand responses.
"The very best ones are well-written, honest, authentic voices shining through and fully interactive, meaning you can knock out a response to something you read right away," said Stephanie Geyer of the consulting firm Noel-Levitz.
Allowing outside comments was a priority at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology because it allows prospective students to ask questions anonymously that they might not otherwise bring up, said Ben Jones, communications director for MIT's admissions' office.
He estimates 50 inappropriate comments have been deleted from more than 28,000 postings.
MIT has expanded its blogging program from three students three years ago to about 15 today. MIT didn't pay its bloggers at first, then relented when Jones saw how much work the students put in. He also worried about the credibility of paying bloggers until he saw that students were posting the good and the bad. They earn up to $40 a week.
Surveys by Noel-Levitz have found that student blogs were among the top things prospective students wanted from college Web sites.
The MIT bloggers average 15,000 to 20,000 hits per day from more than 5,000 unique visitors. Admitted students rank the blogs among the top three factors influencing their decision to attend MIT.
Repeated references in student blogs to the small-town feel of Capital University in suburban Columbus drew high school senior Tishia Richardson to the liberal arts college.
Now she's a student blogger, posting semi-rambling entries on a favorite campuswide stress reliever -- called "Wicked Wednesday" -- and praising the suburb's main drag for its multiple coffee shops.
"Sometimes it's good to know about the little quirks of campus or what people are doing you wouldn't get on a regular campus visit," said Richardson, 18, a freshman majoring in social work.
On the Net:
Ball State University: http://www.bsu.edu/blogcaster2/michael/
Ohio Dominican University: http://www.ohiodominican.edu