School Shopping: Why Most College Websites Aren’t Making the Grade

School Shopping: Why Most College Websites Aren’t Making the Grade

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Obtaining higher education and attending college may be the single most important investment a young adult will make. And it’s no secret that college costs are escalating at an unsustainable pace. The rate of inflation for educational expenses (5.2%) has been far greater than that of healthcare (3.7%) over recent years, and it’s not unfathomable that some eighteen-year-olds may be spending $250,000 on their undergraduate education.

It’s no wonder that prospective students are looking for so much more than just a degree; they’re looking to select an education partner that gives them the best chance of personal growth, networking, and securing career opportunities and lifelong success, before and after graduation.

As recognizable brands, colleges may consider themselves to be competitive in their own landscape, but they must continually meet the growing expectations and demands of an increasingly savvy and self-sufficient marketplace—the students they hope to attract. This empowered group is looking for assurances it can secure high returns on its investment. For these reasons, a school’s web presence needs to be more than brochures and course listings—it needs to be a clear reflection of the ideals an institution values and the opportunities it affords—because prospective students will judge them.

From Digital Ambassador to Sage Guide

A successful website’s first goal must not only be to champion the institution, but also to anticipate individuals’ needs and goals to concisely address and answer critical questions. Considering the website has the potential to be a central “hub” in an ongoing dialogue between the prospective student and the institution, it has several responsibilities. It must present and reflect the qualities that make the place unique. It must communicate the full spectrum of offerings. It must paint a picture of the experience with meaningful relevance. A college’s website is a busy thing. For the student choosing between colleges, relevance is the defining differentiator.

The fundamental first step in the empirical evaluation of a website is task mapping. Website builders interview stakeholders and audiences to understand their needs, goals, and objectives to analyze and streamline complex, cosmic views of their universes into a balanced set of commonalities and points of divergence.

Raw task mapping for the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Source: Ralph Lucci
Structured groupings for the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Source: Ralph Lucci

These findings provide opportunities for showcasing the breadth and depth of an institution and can form strategies for addressing the most critical questions prospective students may have. When website creators find areas of overlap, they can leverage them to unify both user needs and business objectives.

Unified themes are an important foundation for brand storytelling, helping wrap information within greater emotional contexts that provide flexible gateways into various subject matters. The University of Michigan Ross School of Business' website, which we built, attempts to make strong conceptual connections across the school’s “brand pillars,” educational offerings, communities, and faculty through impactful stories and imagery of real people and places. The content strategy strives to cross-pollinate and reinforce pervasive calls-to-action (i.e. “Apply”, “Visit”, and “Connect”) and continually drive engagement.

University of Michigan Ross School of Business rotating homepage. Source: Ralph Lucci

Modes of Behavior and Research

A well-rounded user experience accommodates not just different audience types with distinct interests, but also the divergent needs of evolving objectives. Creating ways for users to access and consume content through “surgical,” “casual,” or “assisted” navigation mechanisms, for example, ensures visitors can move across a website from point A to point B in the most appropriate way depending on the task at hand.

Modes of online engagement. Source: Ralph Lucci

The Academic Journey

We have seen university sites might take the “assisted” concept one step further by producing “student guides” that cater to the specialized needs of prospective and admitted students of unique programs.

These guides should aggregate the most relevant ingredients from across the institutional spectrum and craft a recipe for the full academic experience ahead of students (and parents!). Invite exploration at every step of the journey—from application and interview preparation to visiting and connecting with current student ambassadors and alumni, from opportunities in the classroom and to beyond graduation. Answer critical questions, foster focused engagement and cultivate pertinent connections.

A student guide is a mixture of self-serving resources and a handholding tour; it moves users from a centralized “base” to various regions across a school’s digital ecosystem. Establishing this engagement model as the “spine” of a website serves as an agile yet comprehensive checklist of the most relevant content for respective audiences and their needs. When a student is admitted, for example, such a guide can evolve into a utilitarian dashboard for matriculation built on individual circumstances.

Student guides serve as both ambassador and advisor, delivering insight and vital relevance for all college website visitors, reflecting an institution’s passion and commitment to its community.

University of Michigan Ross School of Business Prospective Student Guide. Source: Ralph Lucci

Ralph Lucci is the cofounder and user experience director at Behavior Design. He has worked with the University of Michigan and the Cooper Union to evolve their sites.

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