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The evolution of the internet during the past two decades forced colleges and universities to rethink how they market to prospective students through their websites. At the same time, learners gained access to a free and virtually infinite pool of resources about the institutions they might like to attend.

The internet fundamentally changed the way students and institutions seek out and select each other, but some experts argue that both aren't capitalizing on the vast information that's available.

Prospective students rely primarily on “official information” from colleges found on the their websites and social media accounts that attempts to “sell” the institution, said Kenneth Hartman, the former president of Drexel University Online.

“Nobody is educated on the treasure troves of information out there,” said Hartman, now founder and president of Our Community Salutes. “That’s been a disappointment to me.” 

Hartman and others also said many college websites don't provide learners and their families  easy-to-find information about costs and other critical questions.

Looking Ahead

In April 1997, at a time when people were skeptical that the internet would become widely used, Hartman published “The Internet Guide for College-Bound Students.” In it, he rightly predicted radical changes in college selection, but it’s the “how” he couldn’t quite pin down.

Hartman thought students and their parents would use the internet to circumnavigate public relations pitches to find out what it’s really like to attend certain colleges and universities.

For example, if a student wanted to study marketing, Hartman thought he could find a website for the university’s marketing club and contact some of its members to find out where recent graduates are working and how easily they secured jobs. This outreach could glean more candid responses than, say, from a university tour guide who studies marketing, he said.

Similarly, if a prospective student is Jewish, she could seek out students on a college's Hillel International Jewish students website and ask them about the campus culture.

But by and large, students are not taking advantage of these opportunities. Their research remains shallow, Hartman said, because they haven’t been taught how to use the tools available.

On the other hand, many colleges and universities have invested huge amounts of time and resources in their websites to make them user friendly, Hartman said, including several discussed below that are using their websites to distinguish themselves from their peers.

Clarifying Costs

Most prospective students begin their research looking for the same basic information, including how much will it cost to obtain a degree. But instead making answers readily available, many institutions bury net-price calculators within their websites, said Bob Johnson, a higher education marketing consultant who advises colleges on their digital presence.

“Most colleges and universities don’t want to talk early about the real cost of going to that school,” Johnson said. “The theory goes, ‘We want you to fall in love with us because of the quality of our programs, beauty of our campus and splendor of our athletics … then we’re going to tell you how much it costs.’ ”

A few colleges have embraced the demand for cost transparency, Johnson said. For example, Wellesley College, a private liberal arts college in Massachusetts, offers “MyinTuition” on its website, a feature intended to be a quick, convenient way to find out how much it actually costs to attend Wellesley.

Williams College offers a similar cost calculator that Johnson said is easier to use than the net-price calculators most institutions are required by law to provide.

Simplifying the Sites

Websites are the most important digital tool colleges have to reach potential students, so they need to be clear, easy to navigate and mobile-friendly, Hartman said.

In 2015, Xavier University in Ohio ditched the standard university website format, re-designing its homepage around a single search box that is large and centered on the page. Visitors can type in what they’re looking for and the top search results will populate in a drop down box below.

“At the time, we called it the ‘Amazon model,’ ” said Rob Liesland, director for web services at Xavier, referring to the mega online retailer. "We wanted people to have a clear call-out: ‘Tell us what you want, and we’ll get you where you want to go."

Xavier’s website gets fewer page views now, but Liesland attributes the dip to the search box’s ability to get visitors where they want to go in fewer clicks. And there is anecdotal evidence supports this, he said.

Bellarmine University also provides a similar search box on its homepage. 

“In higher education, there’s often a very huge reluctance to be the first to do something," Johnson said. “These are the handful of [institutions] going in the right direction."

Need for Speed

Research shows that if a site doesn't load in a few seconds, most visitors will get frustrated and leave. Download speed can be a huge reason students and parents move away from a college's website. 

“If it takes too long for that information to load, or the navigation is too complicated and they’re not seeing something that’s engaging them, they will disappear very quickly,” said Preston Davis, director of instructional services at Northern Virginia Community College.

In addition, if something on the site deters them, most visitors won’t stay to find what they came for in the first place, said Davis, who has experience in educational technology and social media outreach.

Because many people rely more on their mobile devices for their internet use, website design has become as important -- buy it's not something a lot of colleges are thinking about yet, Johnson said.

Google offers a function called “test my site” that allows webstie producers to find out how mobile-friendly their websites are and how fast they load. Johnson said although most universities and colleges rarely score above 70 on a 100-point scale for mobile speed, California Lutheran University's website's mobile speed consistently scores in the high 80s or low 90s. The university also performs well on mobile friendliness and desktop speed.

California Lutheran began enhancing its website's mobile optimization about two years ago, and in the last year, started working on web-page-loading speed, said Erik Hagen, the director of digital marketing. 

Hagen said it’s difficult to draw conclusions from the site’s improved speed and web traffic, but he has noticed a decrease in its bounce rate -- that is, the number of visitors who click onto the page and then immediately click away -- since the site's page-loading speed improved.

“My takeaway has been to make sure the mechanics of the site are going well,” he said. “We try to pay attention to what students want and need and adapt the site to that.”

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