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: Academics² 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 = Academics² ;-), 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.

18 Responses

  1. Terrific post, Karine, and a LOT of great data nicely connected to drive home your point.

    I wish I had a list of great examples of an academic program web page to share with you. Unfortunately, where I work, they have been left to the academic programs for management and upkeep — simply because we don’t have the staffing in our shop to keep them as updated and as connected to the university brand as we would like. The department leaders approach their program sites with varying degrees of interest. A few have invested in their departmental sites but most relegate the responsibility to a student or an office staff member who is either already over-burdened with other responsibilities or has little to no training on web upkeep (or a combination of both).

  2. Karine Joly says:

    I’m sure this is the case in many institutions.

    This is kind of scary though that the pages presenting the core “products” of the institution are not seen as a strategic priority by the departments.

  3. Nancy Prater says:

    We have been seeing that the program pages are the most foundational channel in recruiting adult learners for many years. If you want to see some good examples of academic pages, look at the online education market. I like Penn State World Campus — look at what they put into these pages, like this one for their BS in Business Administration, http://www.worldcampus.psu.edu/degrees-and-certificates/business-bachelors/overview. One of the best things that these institutions do is putting strong calls to actions, such as a filling out a request for information or to register for a webinar. It’s a great way to start a longer conversation with these prospects. I don’t see these things occuring on most departmental or program pages of traditional, residential universities serving undergraduates. On main pages like Admissions, yes, but often not down to the departmental/program level where your best and brightest prospective students are probably lurking.

  4. Karine Joly says:

    You’re right, Nancy, Penn State World Campus has done an amazing job with their program pages — and all was informed by analytics and usability testing.

    That’s why I see the rise of online education as a viable option for non-profit institution as a reason for the marketing refocus on academics and program pages.

    This is going to catch up with the traditional, residential institutions… if they want to stay in the game in the next 20 years.

  5. Great post that raises some key issues here, Karine. Andy is right in that too often institutions farm out academic pages to the respective academic units simply because they don’t have the staffing to manage all of them. It’s a missed opportunity since, as Nancy said, these pages often are key to recruitment.

  6. Michael says:

    Interesting case for higher education. I think the situation is a little different for Graduate school. Yes, it’s to make more money and get a better job, but the money and job must be higher to justify the larger student loan payment you’ll have.

    With that being said, I think the President’s new tool that was launched will definitely be a way to gauge the worth of more education.

    Thanks for the reporting, Karine.

  7. Jay Collier says:

    Here’s another way of looking at this:

    Value is becoming more important than reputation. If a school’s greatest value is contained within specific academic programs or co-curricular programs or online learning opportunities, then those will differentiate the school as the tuition bubble bursts.

    Start with the strongest value propositions, build the online strategy on those, and the implementation should follow.

  8. Erik Hagen says:

    Here’s how we’re tackling the programs.

    1) Marketing maintains a promotional layer that prospects come to first when browsing programs. This layer is intended to give them an overview of the program and requirements, introduce faculty, and tell specific stories of excellent student work and outcomes (alumni profiles, job titles/companies, etc). Should have a prototype ready soon.

    2) Departments maintain their own department site where they can, within reason, manage whatever content they like. It’s usually geared towards current students.

    3) We’re working on setting up a process/pipeline between us and faculty to learn about great student projects and stories so that we can plug them into that promotional layer as well as other channels over time. We’ll see how this goes over…

  9. Lori Nidoh says:

    Hi – we are in the midst of a major website project with many layers including redesign or our home page and primary section pages as well as a new undergraduate admissions microsite. Concurrently we recognize exactly what you are saying, that our academic program pages play a large role in recruitment and need to be updated to reflect that fact. Therein comes the rub – when the content is managed by academic departments and runs the gamut from very good to out of date and poorly presented. On our campus we now are having discussions about the role of the website and how we need to change how we manage the content to put our best foot forward, and not on just what are typically considered “marketing” pages. I think we have buy in from a good portion of the stakeholders on campus so may be looking at how we make changes across the site to support all the good work we will be doing on on the real estate normally under our purview. Wish us luck!

  10. Karine,
    thanks for another great topic. I was able to refer to your post today when I was speaking to the Deans’ Council about the importance of having outcomes information and success stories on majors and minors pages. We have recently started a site-wide effort and although we have some challenges gathering content, we are making progress. Here are two examples: http://www.lynchburg.edu/communication-studies and

  11. Blake Vawter says:

    At Oregon State, we’ve taken a different tack. We’ve struggled with the consistency and message of many academic college and/or department pages, and with 200+ undergraduate programs, we wanted students to discover what pathways made sense to them. This also helps direct students to the appropriate home for their prospective major (i.e. Economics is housed in the College of Liberal Arts at Oregon State, not the College of Business as might be intuitive). To that end, we try to direct students to academic ‘themes’ that show what programs are available based on their interests. We also get to control the message since it’s on /admissions (can you tell where I work..?)


    It could use some visual refreshing, but I’m interested in feedback. This site is one of our highest trafficked pages.

  12. Our team has spent a lot of time working to tweak our Program Profile Pages (staring long before I joined the team).
    I’m looking forward to seeing what others are doing as well.
    Our community college district has 80k students at seven different colleges, plus online courses.
    We’ve found the program pages are highly successful at driving traffic to the individual college websites as well as giving great information to the students interested in the various programs.
    We have a freelance person hired to keep the content up to date and our internet publishing team does the actual updating of the site once she’s submitted revised content.
    We’ve also just introduced a new option for the individual colleges to embed the content on their own websites with their own look and feel if they choose.
    And we use the Google ads to specifically market the seven or eight different career clusters – which lead to the individual programs. We’ve been amazed at how well the content has helped improve our adword ranking.
    I’d love to hear feedback from others on what they think – http://www.dcccd.edu/CD/DCC/Pages/default.aspx

  13. Karine Joly says:

    Thank you so much for submitting examples, Erik, Deborah, Blake and Jonathan.

    And, thanks for your thoughtful comments, Patrick, Lori and Jay.

    I need more time to process everything, but I’m really excited by this discussion.

  14. Tony graves says:

    Great post! Indiana University Northwest campus has done a fantastic job redeveloping the campus web site with navigation, course descriptions and responsive design in mind.
    The campus exemplifies the adult learner model you speak and to this end we are working to make our site very responsive to this shift.
    More development in the works: http://iun.edu/ dev

  15. This is a great post. Perfectly articulates why we redesigned about a year ago to emphasize program pages. We de-emphasized department pages and created a separate program page for every major, minor, concentration and preprofrssional program. The 17-year-old prospect who wants to study physical education has no idea what kinesiology means, let alone how to find his way to a Kinesiology Department page to sift through pages of information to dig out the sentence that says we offer a PE major. The new approach has been a big win for us. Still much more we could do to improve, but it is a start.

  16. My apologies — I failed to send a link to an example. Here’s the program page for our Criminal Justice major. Every program has a page like this, featuring basic information about the program and highlighting courses, faculty, careers, requirements and related programs. https://www.evangel.edu/post/programs/criminal-justice/

  17. Resurrecting a great conversation!

    Andrew, here are some of our strategies for crossing the great academic departments/marketing divide at Converse (Definitely a work in progress!).
    For outcomes: once a month the academic dean send out a call to report any and all faculty and student accomplishments – this started as an internal list for accreditation purposes, but every month we remind our web content editors(who are rooted in the departments and are often the ones collecting the info for this list) that the cream of these accomplishments need to be making it onto our academic pages as well. Thus the expectation is set that there will be something new on their department home page once a month, even if it’s just one “Did You Know?” fact. The other expectation we set is that they will systematically go through their entire section once a year to check for outdated information.

    But as far as getting that critical academic degrees content written and organized in a way that is consistent and makes sense to a 17 year old who’s just looking for a nursing major…I also believe a lot of it can be addressed through process. We don’t have the centralized resources to produce and maintain all of that content, but we’re developing a very detailed content template with samples to use while working very closely with our content editors. The plan is that they will compile/write and we will edit for tone and consistency. The plan is to begin with majors where A. there is the most enthusiasm within the department and/or B. the major is particularly sought after. Hopefully, once a couple departments get these gorgeous new majors pages, and we start circulating the analytics to prove that the majors are garnering more interest as a result, more departments will be eager to jump on the bandwagon.

    I hope that’s useful to somebody.

    Blake, my impression of your majors and careers page is that most would glaze over all that text and go straight for the “list of majors” button. If it takes that much description for them to make sense of your topical organization scheme, is it really effective? But your analytics could confirm or deny that. I love the multi-faceted approach that some schools (like Drew) are taking, with alphabetical listings, exploratory categories, and an “i don’t know” button. Because the reality is, everyone is seeking a different angle to access the information and we should give them as many points of entry as possible, instead of trying to predict the supposed one way they all think.

    And no, Karine did not pay me to say this, but y’all REALLY SHOULD download the recording of her Academic Degree Pages webinar. It helped us get our plan together, gave plenty of examples to learn from, as well as helping us make the case and get buy-in from the rest of campus.

Got a question or comment?