Image: Jessica Priddy
Chuck Burton  /  AP
Jessica Priddy poses on the campus of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro in Greensboro, N.C. Priddy used to help determine that she wanted to attend the school, where she is now a sophomore.
updated 9/24/2006 1:16:16 PM ET 2006-09-24T17:16:16

With her first child headed for college this fall and two more soon to follow, Carol Wright was lost.

Campus tours, applications, financial aid forms, transcripts, SAT scores, class planning — and that was just the beginning.

"It's unbelievable," the Carrollton, Ga., mother said. "You don't know where to start or what to do. It's trial and error, at the mercy of everybody telling me what to do."

Then she heard about Georgia's year-old Web site, — a one-stop shop for applying to the state's colleges and requesting financial aid. Modeled after a similar site in North Carolina, Georgia's has already registered more than 100,000 students and families in just 18 months.

Georgia is now among about 35 states with such sites, an effort by education officials to make college more accessible by demystifying the daunting application process while making it easier for students to enroll in schools within their borders.

The $1.5 million site includes free prep classes for the SAT college-entrance exam, a class planner for students entering high school, applications to more than 100 colleges, virtual campus tours and information on getting one of the state's full-ride, lottery-funded scholarships.

Most states' sites have information on every college in the state — both public and private — and what kind of programs are offered.

But they do have private-sector competition, such as

Rob Franek, publisher of Princeton Review, said his company's site has many of the same features but takes a national perspective. It also includes annual rankings based on student surveys about quality-of-life issues.

"We're unapologetic listeners to student opinion," Franek said.

But some state sites offer advantages unavailable elsewhere, including the ability to electronically apply for state-sponsored scholarships. For the individual states, the sites also help standardize admissions technologies and directly support efforts to bolster access to college.

North Carolina's, which launched in 2000, has been credited with helping increase the state's college-enrollment rate from 57 percent to 68 percent of high school graduates.

"What we were trying to do is level the playing field," said Bobby Kanoy, senior associate vice president for academic and student affairs with the University of North Carolina system. "We had to get that information in the hands of students and parents who otherwise wouldn't have thought about going to college."

On the majority of the sites, students must register to get access to the features. Once they register, they have an account that they can monitor and update throughout high school, which makes applying for college as simple as a few clicks of the mouse. They can submit applications, letters of recommendation, transcripts and financial aid forms all electronically.

North Carolina, which spends about $1 million a year to maintain its site, has 1.3 million students and families registered for accounts. After the first year, the site had just 14,000 registered.

"It's very helpful," said 19-year-old Jessica Priddy of Eaton, N.C., who used to help determine that she wanted to attend the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, where she is now a sophomore.

Kentucky launched its "Go Higher Kentucky" campaign in 2000, part of which is, the state's college Web site. Since then, the number of high school students going on to college has grown from 55 percent to 62 percent.

"When we launched this, the idea of trying to market higher education was a strange bird," said Jim Applegate with the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. "But today it's catching on. It's a result of the recognition that the success of states and the nation depend on an educated population."

In West Virginia, has been running for five years, but the state's higher education policy commission wants to beef up what's offered.

The trend of one-stop college Web sites began in California in 1996 when the 23-campus California State University system saw a need to fill in the gap left by a shortage of college counselors in high schools. Allison Jones, assistant vice chancellor of academic affairs for the Cal State system, said cut down on the red tape involved in applying to college and reduced the amount of paper required to admit students.

CSU now only prints 100,000 applications, compared with the several million before the Web site. Close to 98 percent of the 500,000 applications received are through the site, he said.

California also has developed a statewide site called that gives a comprehensive look at all the colleges in the state rather just one system.

Liz Dietz, CEO of the Xap Corp., which has created many of the sites across the country, said they are especially popular in the South where states are trying to revive their economies.

"It speaks to a change in economics, moving from agrarian or manufacturing to knowledge based," Dietz said. "Those high-paying agricultural and manufacturing jobs just don't exist any more."

Wright, whose daughter, Kristen Shackelford, is a freshman at LaGrange College in Georgia, said was especially helpful in finding financial aid.

"We were looking for major scholarship opportunities," she said. "It was hunt and peck in different places, where this was everything in one spot."

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