By Susan J. Marks With summer here in earnest, parents of high schoolers know that college touring season can't be far away. While a plethora of books and other forms of advice to guide the college-selection process are available, the interactivity of the Internet makes it a natural medium for asking questions, processing data, and spitting back personalized advice and screens to help students focus on a relatively few schools.
One emerging leader in this area is Xap.com, a must-check information source for the college-bound that provides answers on everything from finding the right school, financing it, academic qualifications, campus life, and careers. It's reasonably well-organized and easy to navigate, but it offers very little qualitative analysis and excessive amounts of data, which may overwhelm even seasoned Web crawlers.
Xap.com -- shorthand for expert application -- is a portal for all things collegiate. It offers fairly detailed, if very dry, profiles of 3,600 colleges and universities. Users can shop for computers, student health insurance, and credit cards on the site, but each is offered by only one company. Xap's real claim to fame may be its range of software utilities.
FREE MENTORING. Among the site's offerings: software that screens schools by applicants' interests and grades, a financial-aid wizard, actual online applications accepted by about 500 schools, and an online version of the standard financial-aid application colleges use to determine a student's need. Perhaps most intriguing is a kind of personalized filing cabinet where students can keep their application information, profiles of schools that intrigue them, and more.
It's all free, since 21 states pay the Los Angeles company to operate 23 "Mentor" Web sites, and 10 more are on the way. These sites cover colleges and universities within the state that pays for them, says Xap President and CEO Allen Firstenberg. Xap.com is the umbrella site, providing a national picture.
Xap.com's real weakness is related to its biggest strength: It offers lots of information, but with probably too little analysis. A teenager faced with picking one school from among thousands is likely to have a tough time here. Little of the color and life offered by better college guides will be found here. Also lacking are the qualitative appraisal of schools' reputations and offerings in specific fields that make the closely followed guides published by U.S. News & World Report so distinctive.
SO MANY SEARCHES. The problem for Xap.com users is that there are so many ways to use the site. It's not obvious which will help you -- or your child -- narrow the possibilities most quickly and accurately. After spending hours on the site and barely scratching the surface, I still don't know the answer.
You can search for a school by name, academic offerings, type of college (public, private, religious affiliation), location, or cost. Or, you can try out the College Matching Wizard to help you apply a number of factors, then see if Xap's software can accurately calculate the best overall match. The Wizard brings up helpful questions such as the type of school (trade, community, or four-year, public or private school), class-size preference, your grades, career interests, and more.
But after trying it, I'm not sure it's much help. The Wizard did narrow my search -- to hundreds of schools. Also, I couldn't search for schools by region, but only by individual state, up to three at a time. If I wanted to study journalism at a private school in the East, the Wizard can search only, say, Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts at once. For these three, it returned 255 options! And I'd still have to search New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and the rest of New England.
The utility is not truly terrible. A friend of mine ran the Wizard, plugging in information about a nephew to see how close it would come to finding the school the nephew actually chose -- the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The No. 1 result? Xap came up with the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, with Chapel Hill in the top page of results. But the only way to sort through the reams of results was to open each school's profile. So, the process was a great deal less targeted than it looked.
DATA OVERLOAD. I decided to give up on the search and check out Syracuse University (my alma mater), to see how accurately Xap profiled a school I know well. Clicking "Syracuse University" gave me two more options, an in-depth Campus Tour, with seemingly thousands of specific facts about Syracuse, or Quick Facts, which was not as in-depth, but had some of the same information.
The latter, formatted the same way for most schools, starts with basic location and contact information. Then, it generally offers a hit list of six categories (each with subcategories):
At A Glance (enrollment and percentage of students from out of state)
First Year Admissions (percentage of applicants admitted, average high school GPA)
Academics (average class size, degrees offered, most popular majors and graduation rate)
Costs and Financial Aid (undergraduate tuition, percentage requiring need-based financial aid, average financial aid award)
Student Life (percentage in intercollegiate sports, percentage in intramural sports, on-campus housing available, percentage of students living on campus)
Other Information (transfer applicants accepted -- yes or no, international applicants accepted -- yes or no).
The data and colleges and universities go on and on and on and on. Xap.com definitely has answers to most discrete, factual questions, but it should come with a warning: Info Overload Ahead. Practical users may decide the best approach is to visit Xap only after they have a few schools in mind, or at least have narrowed the search to specific states. Then, Xap becomes a solid, one-stop resource to help evaluate choices of schools and get guidance on college preparation, academics, financial aid, student life, and career information and needs.
THE INTANGIBLES. Even then, you're going to need more than Xap to give you a feel for a place. One quick example: Xap notes that The Catholic University of America has a Division III basketball team. But its section on student life at CUA fails to mentions the school's 2001 national championship -- an event that galvanized the campus and contributes to understanding how big a deal athletics is at the school.
It's one thing to know the University of Maryland has a basketball and football team. It's another to know one won the NCAA championship and the other went to the Orange Bowl this past year, both spurring mass celebrations that left indelible marks on the student experience. All sorts of book and magazine guides do better than Xap at conveying a school's culture and representation, beyond the raw data.
The bottom line is beyond data, there's information, which is what happens when someone applies intelligence to data. Xap has data in spades. But many will find it a little lacking in the value-added department. Marks covers technology from Denver