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Three Factors Critical to Improving Program Exploration for Students

The EvoLLLution | Three Factors Critical to Improving Program Exploration for Students
The process students currently go through to explore their degree options and research postsecondary programs is tedious, institution-centric and unsustainable in today’s postsecondary marketplace.

According to IPEDS, about 600 institutions in the U.S. offer more than 100 programs. Another 1,000 offer between 50 and 100 programs.

While an extensive listing of programs demonstrates the depth of offerings an institution can deliver to students, it may also pose a navigational challenge for prospective students exploring or deciding on a degree or certificate program to enroll in. Scrolling through a long page of program names, looking for concentrations within program pages, and starting the process over for each program explored can result in prospective students leaving their exploration with less information than they need to make an informed decision.

Creating a better approach to program exploration starts with a recognition of the prospective student’s perspective. Higher education website design must consider how information is being explored in addition to what information is being consumed.

Here are three critical factors in degree/major exploration that institutional leaders should consider and address:

1. Career Relevance

Prospective students may be interested in finding a degree that helps them reach a specific career. In which case, it would make sense that a user’s entry of their career interest would occur first to inform the program options presented.

On the contrary, it’s common on .edu websites to present a list of related careers on the various individual program overview pages. This results in a requirement on the part of the user to review the different program overview pages they suspect would be relevant to their career interest.

This creates a tedious navigational experience which increases the likelihood of the user leaving the site without gaining a comprehensive understanding of their available, relevant options.

2. Transfer Alignment

The prior credits or credentials that a prospective student brings to an institution for transfer may be a critical factor in selecting a bachelor-level program. For these students, previously earned one or two-year program alignment (or lack thereof) with various bachelor’s degrees may mean the difference between few or many credits being accepted for transfer. Of course, for this to work, the initial input from the prospective student would need to be their prior degree or credits earned. Only then would the institution have the information needed to identify and present aligned bachelor degree options.

However, on most .edu sites, the transfer information is listed in pages or sections separate from the program exploration. Often, transfer policies are stated and articulation agreements are posted as PDF’s to be opened and reviewed. This presents a do-it-yourself approach to determining the fit for potential programs. Further, if the prospective student wants to get a sense of how much could be saved in tuition and fees with transfer, they’ll need to also visit the Tuition and Fees page, then run their own calculations.

All this manual work may discourage exploration and drive users to leave before they’re adequately informed about their options.

3. Skills and Subjects

Finally, prospective students may come in generally knowing what they want to learn or study. When this is the case, they’re seeking information about the nature of a program, which isn’t always captured in the institutions program name.

On many .edu websites, programs are presented as a list that’s alphabetically organized for the prospective student to scan. This requires the user to depend on program names as a first-level assessment of fit, then click through to program pages to search descriptions and course requirements for additional details. Basically, the information is there, but it’s organized in a way that creates a hurdle for the site visitor to navigate.

Once again, the process is clunky and the risk of prospective students leaving before they’re informed is increased.

Moving Forward

The good news is that these three program exploration challenges are addressable. There is no shortage of information available on careers from sources like the Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Census, and various other data providers. Program information has already been compiled and organized into program pages across institutional websites. Transfer policies exist, articulation agreements have been documented, and programs are likely categorized by CIP code (presenting a basis for relevance). In short, all the legwork has already been done.

The real challenge lies in user experience design and the definition of relationships between the existing points of data. Data sets must be intentionally structured with the user (student) experience in mind. What’s more, websites need to be designed and developed with interactive elements to invite engagement. This takes a lot of work, but the result is a win-win situation for institutions and students.

Now, the easy response is: “this is why we have admissions counselors.”

But prospective students’ expectations—and habits—are changing. Today’s learners want to research online and engage with someone only when they’re ready to apply, following the Zero Moment of Truth approach to purchasing. To compete, colleges and universities need to meet prospective students where they are and provide them with accessible information, on their website, required to make informed decisions.

The alternative is simple—the institutions that take the steps to create meaningful, informative engagement will more often be those selected by students. Let’s make sure the quality of program exploration is rich across the board, giving the prospective student a wider variety of options and increasing the likelihood they’ll find the best possible fit for their individual needs.

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