THE "DIGITAL divide" refers to the technology gap between the rich and the poor, and it can be as debilitating in the education of our children as segregation ever was.
Computers are the modern equivalent of the No. 2 pencil and access to them and an ability to use them is essential to students, particularly those in the upper grades.
The good news is that a new survey released by the Art & Science Group of Baltimore demonstrates that the disparity in Internet access by income and race, although still prevalent in the general population, has closed among college-bound high school seniors.
Not a single one of the students interviewed in a national survey of 500 college candidates said they lacked access to a computer, and 93 percent said they had access to a computer both at home and at school.
Furthermore, 99 percent of the minority students surveyed - compared to 94 percent of white students - reported having access to the Internet.
"It is clear families know that if their child is going to go to a four-year institution, they have to be technology-savvy," says Rick Hesel, one of the principals at the Art & Science Group.
"They know technology is important and they will make sacrifices to have it."
His group surveys college-bound high school students on a variety of topics and makes its findings available to colleges and universities.
The good news about equal access to the Internet is a byproduct of a survey that revealed that increasingly, students and their families are using the Internet to research college choices and, more importantly, to apply. Almost half of the students interviewed said they would prefer to apply via the Internet.
Hesel's own son used the Internet to sort out his college choices, and he applied online. Ultimately he made his decision by going online and comparing curricula.
In fact, Hesel says his son decided not to apply to one university because it did not have an online application service.
"He said he thought that if the school wasn't up to speed on this stuff, what else was missing?" says Hesel.
Online applications are increasing but they still trail paper applications - by a nearly 5-to-1 margin in 1998.
And there is no indication that students are applying to more schools because it is easier. The average student still applies to four or five schools, according to the College Board, so the fear that students would send off frivolous applications with the click of a mouse has not materialized.
"The fear was that online applicants would be less serious because it was so much easier," says Hesel. "But it looks like students are just as serious about where they want to go. It is just easier."
The benefits of the Internet accrue to both the student and the institution.
Often, students can send the same application to several institutions, and often, too, they can monitor the status of their application online and learn if transcripts or test scores are missing.
For the college or university, online applications eliminate the time-consuming and expensive human step of data entry.
Because of this economy, the University of Dayton, which is at the frontier of Internet use, has eliminated the $30 fee for those applying online.
Dayton, which also handles scholarship and financial-aid packages online, has seen its applicant pool grow by 45 percent since 1996 with the help of the Internet.
"Because of this, we have new visibility," says Chris Munoz, associate provost for enrollment management. Not only are the number of applicants up, but the quality of the applicants is higher.
"Students and their families realize that if we are this far ahead of the curve, we are doing something right."
In 1998, 20 percent of Dayton's applications were received online. This year, it is running about 57 percent, says Munoz.
Online applications to the University of Maryland have grown from just 30 five years ago to 5,000 in 1999. But that is still only a fraction of the 30,000 applications Maryland receives each year.
"This is definitely the wave of the future," says Jim Christensen, associate director of admissions at Maryland. "We don't even send out paper grade reports anymore."
The logical next step would be for colleges and universities to use standard online forms for admissions, financial aid and scholarships, and because of the savings in labor-intensive paper shuffling, the entire process would be free to students.
"It should get less expensive," says Hesel. "Soon, cheap software will be available to even the smaller institutions."
The infamous essay question required by most colleges and universities might be the sticking point to universal applications.
"There is this conceit among some institutions that only they can devise the essay question that will reveal the student who belongs at their school," says Hesel.
"Why shouldn't the entire process be standardized," he asks. "Isn't there enough agony in this for students?"
High school students are often promised there is a college somewhere that is right for them, and there is money someplace to help them pay for it. The trick is to make the right academic match and to uncover that money.
The surprise finding of the Art & Science Group - that there is no digital divide among those high school seniors who want to go to college - means the Internet can be the vehicle for making those promises come true.