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The Role of Your Institution’s Website in Driving Student Enrollment

The student experience starts with the website. By delivering accurate information in an accessible format, students are more likely to stick with an institution that has minimal barriers. 

As traditional higher ed infrastructures have shifted to focus on the online component, thriving in the digital environment has become increasingly important—especially for prospective students. The market is becoming more competitive, and it can be harder to stand out to your audience. This is the time to dive in and use your digital presence to elevate your institution. In this interview, Carrie Phillips discusses the importance of a great website for the modern learner, the common challenges of managing an effective website and how to make your institution more student-centric in the digital space.  

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is a great website so important to a modern higher ed institution?

Carrie Phillips (CP): We live in a fast-paced environment where people want to do things on their own time. Having a website that is reflective of the institution’s mission, vision and the offerings available is so important. It allows students the freedom and the flexibility to do their research about college according to what they’re looking for and when it’s convenient for them. That’s also important in the adult learner space. There are so many adult learners interested in continuing their education, and again because of where they probably are in life, having that greater flexibility is so important.

Evo: How can a website influence enrollment and student retention decisions?

CP: One, there’s the technical aspect. That information has to be easy to find, accessible, meet the needs of the students and be written in a way that speaks to them. Equally important is the need for the website to communicate the institution’s brand. At Arkansas Tech University, our brand is founded on three pillars. One is hard work and grit. That’s something we teach our students. That’s who we are as an institution, so a lot of the web copy and images on our website are really focused on that piece. We also talk about support and going out of our way for our students to provide them with the information they need. Our website should be an extension of the support that they get on our campus. 

Finally, we talk about innovation and the idea that we can do a lot of different things, and our website should show some of those innovative paths and offerings. That brand piece is so important because if a student is deciding between Business Program A and Business Program B, they’re going to go with the institution that fits them. That cultural fit is so important, and our websites have to portray that in addition to explaining programs and processes that students need to follow to enroll.

If the experience they get on the website doesn’t match the campus experience and functions, it’s just going to frustrate and upset that student, and it’s not going to be reflective of the experience the university has to offer.

Evo: What are some of the challenges when it comes to creating and managing an effective website for a college or university.

CP: It’s the sheer size and the volume—making sure that content is regularly updated and reflective of what is happening on campus. We also need to make sure that we’re training across campus. When you think about all those programs and departments managing their own web presence, how are we as an institution speaking as one? How are we making sure that the experience on the homepage carries all the way through to a random department several clicks down. The challenge is managing that, both in terms of the brand perspective and just in making sure that it’s regularly updated.

Evo: It’s common for higher ed websites to have outdated or inaccurate information. Does empathy translate to a student when they’re looking at information that’s outdated or inaccurate on the website?

CP: That varies by the student, to be really candid. At Arkansas Tech, we have a high number of first-gen, Pell-eligible students who are of a lower socioeconomic status. We’re number one for upward social mobility in Arkansas—and that’s something we’re really proud of—but the challenge that comes with that is students who may not understand what a FAFSA is or what the registrar’s office is or the bursar or all of these things. Those inaccuracies are sometimes a barrier and struggle because those students just don’t have that contextual awareness. For them especially, updated content really matters. It’s something we’re always working on. I feel like a website should be similar to infrastructure in a major city. It should be like that highway that you’re always improving, always innovating, always working on. You never arrive. You’re always continuing.

Evo: What characteristics of a college or university website help it stand out to prospective students?

CP: That’s going to come down to well-written copy, that’s written for the student. That goes back to having more understanding of who the website serves. Higher education institutions may be trying to be all things to all people on their websites. You have this juxtaposition of faculty using it for X thing and staff using it for Y, but prospective students are using it entirely differently. So, we as administrators of the site have to make decisions about who’s using it, so that we can then write copy that tailors to that student. That’s a key distinguishing factor.

It’s also important that the site architecture is easy to find, going back to that idea that we serve first-generation students. So, processing the website in a way that makes sense to a student is important. A student isn’t going to think about the registrar’s office. They’re going to think about how to sign up for a class. So, processing and putting things in a way that makes sense to that student.

Evo: How does student-centricity play a role in calibrating the website to actually deliver information in a way that’s designed and mindful of the process that a learner might be going through?

CP: It has to be a focus. If you’re an enrollment-driven institution, which in today’s market is the majority, we do ourselves a disservice when we try to put it in all of this jargon. What are the processes? What are the steps? What things do students need to know about fit, about job outcomes? What can they do with this degree? If we can articulate what you can do with X degree, how do we then turn around and market that in a meaningful way to our current or prospective students? All of those things are really important and require a little bit of a culture shift because it almost flips the model on its head. And that’s difficult to do and takes time to go through, to really think holistically in that way. 

Evo: How does the CMS or other tools that you have at your disposal start playing into creating a digital infrastructure that delivers on student centricity?

CP: A CMS is a fundamental must have. That’s ground zero, a starting point. It’s important because we have so many web editors across the campus whose job is to focus on outside things. They may be a faculty member or a staff member in the department. They do not spend all day every day learning about accessibility and SEO and all of these important things, so that CMS is that gateway to making sure that they’re putting things in place, so the user experience is easy to follow, utilizing various approval layers to check for inaccuracies.

In ours, we’re playing a little, doing some exploration around pages that expire if they haven’t been checked in a certain amount of time. We’re using that in a very limited way right now, just to see what that may look like. But again, we have to get people into the mindset that the web is a dynamic, living thing. It’s not set once a year and forgotten. That’s a challenge because we’re all understaffed, under-resourced and doing more with less, so the website gets thrown into that, but we have to find creative ways to make it a priority.

Evo: Is there anything that you’d like to add about creating an environment and a culture that’s designed around student-centricity and reflected in your digital properties?

CP: That’s the direction it’s heading in. As we look at what all of the enrollment demographics tell us in the coming years, that’s going to be such an important part of this. It’s something that institutions are starting to really look at, and it’s exciting to see that digital infrastructure moving front and center in the professionalization of this kind of industry. But it’s also a really big challenge to live up to that.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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