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The Vital Role of High-Quality Websites in Higher Education

Acting as the front door for a higher ed institution, a website must anticipate and respond to user needs, value their experience and draw them in to become lifelong students.

The website is an institution’s digital front door. It is often the first place students and their families go to learn about the institution, and they can spend months looking through the website before visiting the institution in person. Much like a front door to a home, if a website doesn’t look welcoming, chances are students won’t explore further than the homepage before leaving to look elsewhere.

This first impression can go a long way in the student’s journey, from inquiry to deciding where they want to attend. A positive experience on the website, complete with imagery and messaging that help the student envision attending the institution, can be instrumental in encouraging the student to enroll or remain at the institution to complete their degree.

Removing pain points or parts of a website that prove to be frustrating to students and other visitors—unnecessary clicks, outdated or incorrect information, etc.—has to be an area of focus every day for higher education leaders. It can’t only be a focus for prospective students. If the website was easy for students to use when they had been considering the institution, they will expect the same as a current student.

Student Expectations

First and foremost, students expect answers when they visit the website. Whether it is a form that needs to be completed, where to go to speak with an advisor or the deadline to add or drop a class, students expect to find it somewhere on the website and be able to find it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Not only do they expect the answer, they want it as quick as possible. So, it is imperative that the website is easy to navigate and search. Having a consistently positive experience on your website can be part of the institution’s efforts to build up trust and a benefit of the doubt—what I like to call putting money in a piggy bank—that can come in handy if a crisis were to occur that could damage the institution’s reputation. 

Students also expect to feel welcomed, just like on any website. Regardless of if we are shopping online, reading the latest news or just browsing, we have an innate desire to feel valued by whatever institution or organization whose site we are visiting. For a higher education institution, that feeling can come from imagery and storytelling that the students can relate to and use to help imagine themselves at your institution. This type of personalized experience can be tough to provide with a diverse student population, but it is better to try for it than to have a dull, generalized website.

The Challenges to Delivering High Quality

There are a few different factors that can prove to be a challenge to producing a high-quality website.

Resources can be the biggest challenge—with higher education budgets often getting tighter and tighter, a shift from a high-quality website to a good-enough website could be due to needs that might be considered more essential—enrollment marketing, brand identity work, strategic communications, etc. All these elements are critically important and play a role in providing content to the website. In this digital landscape, where information is housed and how accessible it is to everyone is of the utmost importance. Since the website consistently serves as the first (and potentially most often used) source of information for prospective and current students, their families and other external stakeholders for the institution, overcoming the challenge of resources is critical.

While it could be tied to resources, another challenge is maintaining expertise in a rapidly changing digital space. There are always new tools to discover and consider. Struggling to keep up with the ever-evolving landscape can lead to a website that is constantly outdated and stale. Add in the importance of the site being accessible to all audiences, and now the need for expertise is amplified even more.

Finally, another challenge can be consistency in the messaging across platforms. When using social media or other avenues to communicate messaging about the institution, a call to action to visit the website is likely included. It can be a challenge to ensure what is in the social media post is consistent with what is on the website, especially if marketing/communications and web are in separate areas of the institution and don’t have a consistent workflow for sharing information.

This consistency (or lack of) can also be reflected on the website itself. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we created a health advisory website to house all the information about vaccination requirements, masking, etc. While we could keep up with information early on in the pandemic, soon it became apparent that the Student Wellness Center was updating their website more frequently than our university marketing and communications team could. Instead of having inconsistent information between the two sites, we stripped much of the manual information we would input off the page, shifted our health advisory site to act more like a central hub and routed students to the Student Wellness Center for the most up-to-date information.

What It Takes to Meet Students’ Needs

Involving students in the process of creating a website intended to meet their needs is a great practice to build into the workflow. Whether it is consulting students at the beginning of the process or utilizing a student focus group for user testing (or both), student involvement can help alleviate concerns about meeting their expectations and needs.

Three items that I would consider requirements are time, flexibility and accessibility. Building something high quality takes hours of concentrated brainstorming and execution. It cannot be rushed because, recalling the front door analogy and the need to make a good first impression every time students access the website, building a welcoming and consistently accurate website requires planning before implementation.

Creating a website also requires flexibility, mainly when it comes to design. If you want to best meet student expectations and needs, the use of heat maps, analytics or qualitative feedback can prompt the need to change page content and/or layout. Regardless of the hours spent or the conviction that the website plan is perfect, if the goal is to best serve the students, being willing to change course will lead to a stronger website. 

Last but not least, accessibility is required to ensure all visitors can interact with the website and have a positive experience. Being inclusive can help students feel like they belong at your institution, which will drive enrollment and retention.

The Impact of a High-Quality Website

Along with social media, the website can be the most visible avenue for how internal and external stakeholders interact with the institution, regardless of if it is their first time visiting or they have worked with the institution for decades. A high-quality website can enhance the brand, amplify institutional messaging and serve as a vital resource for information about majors, programs and research, among other areas. When the website is robust and high quality, it becomes a digital representation of the institution and can raise the prestige and perception for external stakeholders.

A high-quality site can make learners more comfortable, knowing the questions they have will be answered quickly by accessing the site. By anticipating a student’s reason for visiting the website, an institution can build a sense of belonging and care for the student, especially for students who may not have a support system or who are the first in their family to attend a higher education institution.

Overall, having a high-quality website can expand an institution’s reach and elevate the call to action for all other marketing and communications content. By getting people to want to walk through the digital front door, you are opening up possibilities for how someone might get involved with the institution. If you can draw them in with a high-quality website, that person could go from prospective student to lifelong supporter and proud alum.