Nearly eight in 10 students say campus tours are valuable.

Spiking gas prices and a growing reliance on college websites could make online campus maps a premiere recruiting tool, to the tune of $60,000 per month.

Technologists who have tracked the evolution of the interactive campus map say the online tour—complete with 360-degree views, descriptions, and videos—will take on a more vital role in college recruitment efforts as gas prices rise and the days of multiple campus visits become unfeasible for most middle-class families.

“You simply can’t afford to take your children to 20 schools to see what they’re all about anymore,” said Kyle James, founder of the popular higher-education site .eduGuru and a former webmaster at Wofford College in South Carolina, during a Feb. 28 edSocialMedia webinar. “It’s just too expensive to do that … but it’s vital in the recruitment process.”

James wanted to know how valuable interactive campus maps were for colleges and universities, so he did the math: If every student is worth an average of $30,000 annually to the college, and if 20 percent of students choose the school, every applicant is worth $6,000.

If 20 percent of applicants take a traditional in-person campus tour, each student visit is worth $1,200. If 5 percent of those visiting students are influenced by first viewing an interactive campus map, then each time the map is viewed, the map is worth $60.

With a modest 1,000 visitors to a campus map page every 30 days, the map can be worth $60,000 per month.

“This is why we think the interactive map is single-handedly the most important part of your website, because it has this kind of impact,” James said.

Even as the traveling costs of college tours have crept steadily upward in recent years, seeing a college remains among the most effective recruiting tools in higher education.

A survey of 1,000 students conducted by marketing group Noel-Levitz in 2010 showed that nearly eight in 10 prospective students said a campus visit was “valuable.” James said students are increasingly looking for online tours before they commit to driving or flying to campus to see the grounds in person.

And prospective college students might expect those interactive tours to be available on their smart phones.

Fifty-two percent of prospective college students said they had viewed a school’s website on a mobile device in 2011—more than double the percentage from 2010. And 48 percent of those students said the mobile site experience bettered their view of the campus.

“Colleges and universities would be wise to use these types of mapping services as ancillary options for previewing or reviewing a campus in conjunction with the actual campus visit,” said Drew Bowling, a writer for WebProNews who has tracked Google’s foray into 360-degree campus maps. “[Campus maps] could prove to be a great cost-saver when the only other option for re-visiting a campus is to physically go there.”

Detailed, interactive campus maps might be best left off a college’s website if the campus surroundings are less than aesthetically pleasing, Bowling said.

“Some colleges might not want to include the campus map if they happen to be self-aware enough to know that their campus isn’t a treat for the eyes,” he said. “If I think a campus looks ugly by using Google Maps, I will likely only presume that it looks like double-crap in real life.”

James, CEO of nuCloud, a company that makes interactive maps, said interactive campus maps can be a waste of IT staffers’ time and university money if built improperly. Some colleges and universities use Flash to animate their campus maps, making the maps difficult or impossible to access for many website visitors.

Overloading the campus map with graphics and slowing down load speeds will test the patience of prospective students—a risky proposition for a generation accustomed to high-speed internet connections, James said.

Campus maps with a laundry list of options—libraries, laboratories, stadiums, dormitories, and more—on the front page can drive away prospective students after just a few seconds of visiting the site. And a map homepage with a unique layout that doesn’t fit the mold of familiar platforms like Google Maps or Mapquest could confuse visitors, James said.

“Don’t go with a novel idea that’s completely different, because no one will be able to use it,” he said.

Advanced interactive campus maps and escalating gas prices won’t spell the end of traditional campus tours. Higher education, James said, is too large an investment to rely on a web-based tour.

“I do think it’ll play a big role there, but I don’t see it ever completely replacing [the traditional tour],” he said. “Parents are not going to spend tens of thousands of dollars without visiting the school first.”


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