Why your academic program web pages matter more than ever in #highered

February 20th, 2013 Karine Joly 18 Comments

Beyond the Homepage

If you take care of websites in higher education, you’ve noticed we’ve had an unhealthy fascination for the past few years with website homepages (and their sliders or banners ;-), content management systems, a myriad of social media channels, mobile websites and more recently the wonderful world of responsive design.

No surprise there, I know.
New technologies or techniques are part of the territory when you work in this industry.

Yet, for all the energy spent on fighting the good fight over homepage real estate (“I want a link to this obscure HR regulation on the homepage!”), have you often heard people say: “we need to work on our academic program web pages!” – well, except maybe for a quick copy-and-paste job ;-)?

I See Dead… Assumptions

Why would we have when college was perceived by a thriving population of prospective students and their parents as the 360-life-changing experience it is most of the time – and not just reduced to a degree leading to a better job?

Call me a pessimist, but lately, all the discussions around college affordability, accountability, debt and tougher financial times have started to put a real dent in this perception.

Faced with a major disruption fueled by innovation and money from venture capitalists looking for the next big thing, changing demographics, increasing debt and skyrocketing costs, the higher ed market (I know, forgive me for borrowing a word from the dirty world of business ;-) has started to reshape its customer student base.

Today’s and tomorrow’s prospective students have different needs, expectations and means.

Not sure it’s the end of business as usual?

Have a look at the 5 following stats and facts that are paving the way to a big marketing refocus on academic programs in most institutions.

1) Crazy enrollment growth is a thing of the past

According to the Section 5 of “Projections of Education Statistics to 2021″, a report published by the National Center for Education Statistics, while the total projected enrollement will increase over the next decade, it won’t be at the pace we’ve experienced over the past 15 years. The highest growth rate (25%) is projected for students aged 35 or older while the traditional college-aged population will increase by 10% only vs. 46% during the previous period.

It will still represent the biggest slice of the enrollment pie, but the “big growth” party is over.

Actual and projected numbers for enrollment in all postsecondary degree-granting institutions, by age group: Fall 1996, fall 2010, and fall 2021

With growth slowing down and an increase in the number of sellers via the entry of new disruptive players (Coursera, anybody?), we are going to get more into a buyer-market.

2) The online student population is growing at a steady pace

According to “Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States”, a report published by the Sloan Consortium and based on a survey about online learning conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group and the College Board, 32% of the students enrolled in institutions of postsecondary education take online courses.
Total and online enrollment

Moreover, 69% of academic leaders surveyed think online is critical to their long-term strategy.

Online ed critical to the long-term strategy

When propspective students are on the market for a graduate or undergraduate ONLINE degree, old buildings, state-of-the-art sports centers, extra-curricular activities and even winning athletics teams don’t matter as much as they do for traditional students. It’s always better to have all of these, but they only act as the branding cherry (“yes, this program is from a real university”) on the academic degree cake.

3) For students, higher education HAS TO = a better job

Even currently enrolled freshmen in 4-year universities and colleges have never been so focused on the future when it comes to their education. Conducted this past fall by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program from the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, the 2012 Freshman Survey asked many questions to 192,912 full-time students enrolled in 283 institutions.

For 88% of freshmen, the ability to get a good job was a very important reason to go to college.
88% go to college to get a good job

This is an all-time high.
Reasons to go to College - The American Freshmen Survey (CRIP HERI)

As a result, degrees and academic programs should play a bigger role in the college decision for this career-focused generation.

4) The MOOC side-effect: AcademicsĀ² FTW!

The Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) have taken our industry by storm for the past 12 months. While the take-over has been more focused on the media and PR fronts so far, this disruptive innovation is definitely getting a lot of bandwidth right now in people’s mind as you can see on this Google Trends graph.

No matter who offers them (Coursera, Udacity, edX or institutions like West Virginia University or Syracuse University), the MOOCs put the focus back on academics.

Whether we’re talking about the course syllabus or the academic teaching it (Academics x Academics = AcademicsĀ² ;-), these new courses have become very powerful marketing channels for academics by letting them reach (if not always teach) millions of students around the world.

With such big numbers, university professors teaching these MOOCs can become real internet celebrities in a matter of weeks.

The world wants to learn. And, the Internet has made learning sexy again.

In this context, your prospective students want to know much more about what they will learn if they decide to attend your institution to get their degree.
Do your academic program pages offer compelling content to respond to their needs?

5) College Scorecard: the new college shopping app

College Scorecard MS&TIf this wasn’t enough, President Obama’s big announcement about the College Scorecard website last week at the State of the Union shows how the government is committed to provide as much data as possible to help students and parents make an educated college decision.

While important data is still missing from the application, its design puts a lot of (all the) emphasis on costs, graduation rate and college debt.

If prospective students and their parents start to use this new “college shopping app” early in the process, cost and degree outcomes could become the first filters in their search.

I don’t mean that the reputation, the brand and the nice campus won’t make a difference. They will, but for some institutions, a stronger marketing focus on academic programs and job outcomes might be the best bet to stay in the race.

So, Do Your Academic Program Web Pages Work in this New Context?

  • When they do a search for the degree that will lead to a fullfilling career or a promotion, can your prospective students find your program web pages?
  • Can they find compelling information to keep your institution on their short list
  • Can they learn more about the program they are interested in and get to know a bit the faculty members that will make such a big difference in their professional lives?

I’m looking for good examples of academic program web pages to feature the best ones in a future post.

So, please post a link to your favorite academic program web pages (your own or another institution’s) so we can see if we are ready for this marketing refocus on academics.