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Advise Utah — your cybercounselor

Web site has tons of information on Utah colleges, universities

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It won't really replace a counselor, but it will go a long way toward answering any question you might have about Utah's system of higher education — whoever you may be.

It is Advise Utah, a Web site with comprehensive information on Utah's colleges and universities, addressed specifically to seven audiences: high school students, current college students, adults interested in college education, students considering a transfer from one institution to another, graduates, international students and parents.

Put it down for future reference — www.adviseutah.org — but don't try it before Oct. 1. Currently it is undergoing testing by 120 people representing each of the groups to be certain it is user-friendly and accurate. Other finishing touches are expected to be approved by an advisory committee on Sept. 18, and then it will be ready for public use, said Phyllis "Teddy" Safman, assistant commissioner for academic affairs.

Advise Utah will put information at the user's fingertips — tailored to an area of specific interest — on each of the nine universities and colleges that make up the Utah system. For high school students, that could include such things as available courses, how to finance a college education, housing and opportunities for socializing. Parents might focus more on how to prepare a student for college, how families are included in the college experience or even how they might donate to a college of choice.

Links to national sites will give students current information on the job market, career options and other materials helpful in making a college choice.

"We're putting a wealth of information at their fingertips," Safman said.

For her, debut of the Web site is the culmination of several years of talking about, planning and then executing plans to get it up and going.

When she left Utah in 1997 for work opportunities in Washington, D.C., and then Chicago, preliminary discussions had taken place.

"When I returned in September of 1999, it hadn't moved forward. We pulled a team together to brainstorm and look at the larger picture." The proposed Web site fit into higher education's "Master Plan 2000," which called for a self-service Web site to facilitate transfers and graduation throughout the system, she said.

As developed, the site goes well beyond those goals. And a contract relationship with Mentor, a national system, will ultimately expand the information base considerably and allow students to actually apply to colleges, arrange for financial aid and transfer from one school to another online, Safman said. By filling out one form, the student would be linked with any of the states in which Mentor functions — at least 10 at present. The tie to Mentor is still being developed. Mentor is a program of XAP, a California company.

Mentor has developed safeguards to protect financial information and other sensitive materials that require confidentiality, Safman said.

The success of Advise Utah will depend largely on how widely it is known and used by counselors at junior and senior high schools and at the college level, Safman said. Over the next few months, every avenue possible, including a public advertising campaign, will be used to spread the word. A member of the State Office of Education sits on the advisory committee and Safman expects that will help to alert public school officials "in a big way. If necessary, we will meet with people in every one of the 40 school districts."

School counselors have traditionally been overloaded and hard-pressed to meet the demands for information brought by students interested in post-high-school education. The Advise Utah question-and-answer format will allow them to steer students to virtually every piece of information they would likely seek about Utah's colleges and universities.

The process of developing Advise Utah actually was helpful in prompting Utah's colleges and universities to update their information, Safman said. "Some of them were still referring to quarters, something we haven't had since 1998." The system converted to a semester format that year.

A coordinator is being sought by the Utah Higher Education Assistance Authority, which deals with student financial aid, to work on outreach plans and make sure the Web site becomes an effective tool for dispensing information about the higher education system, she said.

The design of the site, including the current "most popular colors — lime green and orange" was created by Media Solutions & Co., a company with University of Utah affiliations, Safman said.

Over the past few months, previews of the Web site have been shared with members of the State Board of Regents and legislative groups such as the appropriations subcommittee for higher education. Comments have universally been positive, she said.

Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Salt Lake, said that as a parent, she is anxious to be able to use the Web site. After viewing it during the subcommittee, she said, she felt it will be very helpful.