The new 2018 E-Expectations® Trend Report by OmniUpdate and Ruffalo Noel Levitz is out with the latest research about how college-bound students engage digitally with higher ed websites. The findings? Students are sophisticated digital consumers who expect personalized engagement and information at their fingertips. How does your school stack up?
If you are embarking on a website redesign for your college or university or simply looking to do some updates, you might start the process by browsing through websites of competitors or like schools. Perhaps you’ll search for design companies and look for pertinent performance data. You may even solicit feedback from faculty about what to include. These types of research can be invaluable, but they all fail to consider the most important element in education website design: the student.
The primary audience of your website is the prospective students you want to attract to your institution. Yet to fully get their attention in this mass media world, you’re going to have to stand out.
This year’s E-Expectations report, based on a survey conducted in the spring, identifies findings from high school juniors and seniors about how their needs and expectations evolve during the college search process. Equipped with this data, your institution has the tools it needs to create a robust digital presence that delivers a dynamic, engaging experience to students.
Following are specific elements highlighted by students that appeal to them in their college search.
- Easy-to-See Programs and Degrees
This seems like a no-brainer, but the students are right: On many websites, this vital information can often be accessed only after several clicks through to the right page. Do them a favor by using a clear navigation structure that takes them from the home page directly to the programs page. From there, your site should allow the student to self-direct to programs of interest.
- Academic Program Details
A simple list of programs doesn’t provide a prospective student enough information to make an informed decision. Neither does a brief description. Savvy college websites provide personalized pathways that include course listings broken into suggested semesters. Some colleges create videos of current students discussing the program as well as those who have graduated. Others provide information about salaries to expect upon receiving the degree, from entry level to various years on the job.
- College or University Type, Mission, Surroundings
Be clear about your institution’s mission and campus atmosphere. Don’t downplay the rigor of academic coursework, and don’t forget to mention any unconventional rules/customs on campus, such as religious restrictions, school contracts, or alternative grading systems.
- Visual Appeal
Form follows function, but without an attractive website, students indicated in the report that they would quickly move on to another site that catches their eye. Use visuals to your advantage, showcasing the beauty of your campus, the diversity of your students, and the appeal of your dining halls. Convert boring numbers into easy-to-read charts. Keep your colors fresh and bright and your fonts crisp.
- The Importance of Search Ranking
Students point and click, and usually they’re pointing and clicking on colleges that rise to the top of search rankings. They’re at the top for a reason, right? Not necessarily. Google has been working hard to increase rankings for relevant, quality content, but the fact remains that you can still tweak your website to increase search engine optimization. How do you know what works? Take advantage of specialty tools, informative SEO articles, and SEO-specific rules so that your site becomes a viable part of your marketing strategy.
- Reader-Friendly Web Pages
Chances are you’ve received an email from an esteemed professor on campus, but you can’t understand what it says. Don’t make the same mistake with your website. Use clear, concise messaging. Take the time to create an organized and structured information architecture. Follow tested design principles. Present copy in chunks of information with headers to break up text. Fix broken links. Make sure your site loads quickly. Together, these tips add up to a user-friendly site that is accessible, informative, trustworthy, and pleasant to view.
- Website Navigation
Do a double check right now: Is your school’s website navigation clearly marked on your home page? Does it remain consistent in format and placement from page to page? Is it specific? Have you eliminated annoying sub-menus? The key to attracting and keeping your users engaged is presenting information clearly and directly. The more you confuse users, the more frustrated they become.
- Photos of Faculty, Students, Campus
Beauty shots do what words can’t: They depict the physical, emotional, and mental spaces on campus in a way that connects deeply with students. Likewise, prospective students are curious to see what their future professors will look like, and they want to know if your college’s students look like them. Finding similarities creates connection and reassures high schoolers that they, too, belong at your college.
- Clear Application Directions
Can this actually be an issue on a college website? Apparently so, according to 24 percent of seniors surveyed. If a student can’t find your application, or if your application is so overwhelming that the questions need explanations, it might be time to rethink your application process.
- Virtual Campus Tours
Virtual is the next best thing to visiting your school. Nearly two-thirds of students viewed virtual tours and virtual reality videos, making video content a powerful influencer for prompting that next step of visiting your campus.
Your institution’s website is an investment, and by leveraging this year’s student engagement data, it can also be a powerful recruitment tool. To learn more about how to engage and inform high school juniors and seniors with your institution online, download the 2018 E-Expectations Trend Report.