A Difference a Decade Can Make in Higher Education Websites

Becky Morehouse

Becky Morehouse

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Times have changed and it can be challenging in higher education to adjust as quickly as the market demands from us. As we look back over the last decade, we can point to six ways websites are different today than they were then.

If your website is still functioning in a structure that worked a decade ago, it most likely needs an overhaul—and a governance strategy to support that overhaul.

Are prospects your priority?

We used to make all audiences (current students, faculty, staff, alumni, community members, prospects, etc.) equal in importance. Hey, we don’t want anyone to feel left out, right? Wrong. Your website is the primary place for prospective students to find what they need to know about your institution. Make those prospects your primary focus. Sure, the others are important, but when it comes to your website, prospects come first.

Is your website user-focused?

The old way was very institution-centric, based on your institution’s organizational chart. A new strategy will show users you care more about them than showcasing your cabinet. Do you have up-to-date social media accounts, including Pinterest, TikTok, and Instagram? Prospective students want to know what your programs and majors are (and why you offer them best), what campus life is like, where to park, and how your campus community is a place they will feel comfortable and welcome. The total number of monthly active IG users is 2+ billion and of them, 8% are 13-17 years old. Let’s do the math—that’s 160 million IG users in the traditional prospective student demographic. Now is the time to get more user focused.

Does your website feel like a campus visit?

Have you checked your website lately for how each landing page looks and sounds to a prospective student? Take the time because you may be surprised. Many student-intended pages (and which ones aren’t today?) read more like a catalog—lots of academic speak at a college-reading level. That’s a surefire way to disengage from your prospects. Your website (and social media accounts) should be like a campus visit—warm, engaging, conversational, and personal—with lots of engaging images, success stories, and personal connection…followed up with texting and social media.

Are you telling your story?

Do you like to read catalogs? Me neither. So why do we design our websites to look like a catalog with lists of programs, classes, events, news—and So. Many. Words?! Because that’s the way it’s always been done. No more. Your website is the very best place to tell your story and who doesn’t love a great story? Use up-to-date design with fewer words and engaging graphics; images and videos of students enjoying themselves on your active campus and infographics that tell a story in quick bites instead of long, boring paragraphs.

Read more: How Teens Use College Websites: A Fast-Scrolling User Journey

Do your academic program differentiators lead the way…with “standard” greetings and messages demoted to less prominent positions (or left out entirely)?

What opening message does your website give? “Hello. Welcome to our department (college, unit, etc.).” Instead of institution first, how about programs first? Because that’s why someone is looking at your website in the first place—to investigate available programs, get a glimpse of life on campus, and deliver on the outcomes they desire. In our recent website redesign for Kirkwood Community College, the main landing page opens with vibrant videos of the campus, students, sports and arts opportunities, but in big, bold letters you’ll see “Explore Classes Starting Soon.” Only three tabs go across the top banner: Find a Program, Explore Kirkwood, and Get Started.

And finally, 

Does your website separate internal-audience content from content directed at external audiences?

We all want our websites to be the one place everyone goes to get all the information they need, including current students, faculty, staff, alumni, etc. But if our focus is on our prospects, then all that internal messaging must be on your intranet, not out in the wide-open spaces of the site. Keep family business private.

First, you must admit your website doesn’t meet the needs of today’s prospective students. Then you need to determine what to do about it. If you want prospective students to pursue their education with you, you must offer the best first impression possible…and that’s almost always your website.

If you answered no to any of the above, I would love to connect to discuss how your site can be a strong enrollment tool as the first engagement point for prospective students.

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