Heading to a new university for Fall 2010 and want advice from other students? Looking for housing, textbooks, knowledge about a professor or class, or simply a ticket to the weekend's big game?
Technology companies and your school may have answers on your computer or mobile phone, and it won't cost a thing -- at least not yet.
Colleges and universities across the United States are going beyond simply creating websites and pages on Facebook for students to "friend" or "fan." They are working with technology companies to build their own social networks and integrate them into campus life to boost admissions and retain students.
One new app from San Francisco-based Inigral, Inc. allows colleges to create social networks within Facebook, while a mobile technology from Foursquare gives students the ability to walk into an event, check their phone and find other students.
Like many apps from technology start-ups, these student-oriented ones currently are free for users, but the owners see the potential to make big profits in the future as capabilities increase and usage grows.
"We want to be able to find prospective students where they are, and it is clear to us that Facebook is the dominant source," said Columbia College Chicago's executive director of admissions Murphy Monroe, whose college recently adopted the new app from Inigral, called "Schools on Facebook."
"We want to meet them there in a secure way, and in a way that feels authentic to our school's culture, and the (new) product gave us an unusual way to do that," Monroe said.
The app, called "Schools on Facebook," allows colleges to form private communities that give students school-specific profiles and keeps them separate from personal accounts.
When a student signs up, he or she gives Facebook permission to add the app, and school information is then waiting for them upon their first login.
"We use the data given by the students and the school to introduce them to other students like them," said Inigral's director of interactive communications Tony Zanders.
Alicia Castro, a sophomore majoring in interdisciplinary studies at Arizona State University, said the app helped her land a free textbook.
"I found a friend who had taken a (communications) class that I was going to take, so I asked him for his book," Castro said. "I thought that was pretty convenient."
Colleges see programs like "Schools on Facebook" as being able to help increase early enrollment and retention.
Students who have been admitted to a college -- but may not have chosen to attend -- have access to the app, meaning they potentially can meet other students and build friendships before fully deciding to enroll in that particular school.
Monroe said schools have a short window of time to lure admitted students into attending their university. "Schools on Facebook" provides a unique way to build a single community where students can find each other, talk to one another and have conversations about college expectations.
"Hopefully through that process, students can grow some affinity to our school, and we hope that once these students arrive on campus they will already be somewhat enculturated (to the college)," Monroe said.
Sixteen colleges and universities are now using "Schools on Facebook" nationwide -- up from seven at around the same time last year -- including Columbia College Chicago, Arizona State University and the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Inigral CEO Michael Staton sees the market maturing rapidly with new functions over the next five years. "As we release capabilities the market is demanding, we expect our average price for an average school to be $100,000," he said.
Similarly, Foursquare coaxes students to interact, but uses mobile phones and connects students at specific venues -- the football stadium, for instance -- within a college campus.
"Universities are recognizing the potential for using Foursquare to communicate with their student body," the start-up's marketing manager Anna Frenkel told Reuters.
Foursquare allows users to "check in" at venues via smartphones, and they are awarded points, "badges" and even discounts for a certain number of check-ins. When they check in, students can find friends or other students at the same location with whom to make conversation or ask questions.
Harvard University -- former home to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg -- was the first university to begin using Foursquare after its launch in 2009.
"Harvard is made up of so many schools, campuses, libraries...and it seemed like great opportunity for us to say, 'There are interesting location-based technologies that tie digital content to real life,'" said Harvard's director of digital technologies Perry Hewitt.
Other schools that have launched Foursquare include Stanford, Syracuse University and The University of North Carolina Charlotte.
(Reporting by Carolina Madrid; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)
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