Four Academic Program Finder Recommendations
Four Academic Program Finder Recommendations


Four Academic Program Finder Recommendations

Feb 27, 2019By Mallory Willsea

After speaking with more than 25 director- and VP-level marketing leaders since the start of the year, it is clear to us that many colleges and universities are planning to invest more time and resources in improving their program pages in 2019.

We agree that this is an important investment to make — and our research confirms it. Ninety-three percent of teens indicated how important academic-related content is to them in our Mythbusting Websites research. They said finding information about majors and academic programs was the No. 1 reason they visit a college website.

What is top of mind for many of these marketing leaders is to ensure that their academic pages are discoverable. That comes with some challenges:

  • Are program pages SEO-optimized? Many visitors will find and visit your program pages directly from search engines.
  • Is the site easy to navigate? We can’t assume the homepage is the first entry point for all visitors. If a student is on the undergraduate admissions site or checking out student activities, they should be able to easily navigate over to academic information.
  • What if someone just wants to explore? Many students, especially in the early stages of their admission journey, don’t know what they want and don’t know what you offer.

An accessible academic program finder is the best way to help visitors discover and explore your academic offerings. It will allow prospective students to search and filter fields of study by various criteria and view undergraduate, graduate, and non-degree program offerings within each field.

Having worked with dozens of institutions to design and develop this important tool, we offer four recommendations to anyone considering the addition of a program finder on their site:

1. Labels: Keep It Scannable

Your program labels should offer as much information as possible about each program, while also creating a scannable and easily digestible list. Labels should answer three questions:

  1. Who is this program for? Be clear if the degree is for undergraduate, graduate, and/or certificate students.
  2. Where is this degree offered? This is important if you have online offerings or multiple locations.
  3. How is this degree different from the others you offer? Highlight key information such as full-time versus part-time and the number of years required for completion.

Visit the Park University program finder page.

2. Content: Improve Your Program Pages

A program finder is simply the tool to drive prospective students to right-fit academic offerings; it is not a replacement for those top-level degree program pages. These pages will undergird the program finder.

We advise our clients to audit their program pages at the same time they build the program finder. We often find that institutions need to refocus the content on these pages to be more:

  • Prospective student-oriented: The information you provide should be highly usable, informative, and persuasive.
  • Consistent: The best user experience comes from program pages that have a consistent structure and answer the important questions all prospects have.
  • Scannable: Employ best practices for arranging your content so a prospective student can easily read through these pages.

Visit the Lipscomb University program pages.

Opportunities to improve your program pages will surface if you make the content shift from answering the “what” to building a case for “why.” Here are a few starter questions to get going in the right direction:

  • Why should I study this subject? Why at this institution?
  • Whom will I be learning from?
  • What is the class size?
  • Where do alumni work or pursue advanced degrees?
  • What careers will be open to me?

3. Structure: Choose a Simple or Custom Build

Regardless of your institution’s program structure, a crucial aspect of your program finder is that it needs to be searchable and easy to use. How the tool behaves is just as important as how it looks. The structure of the program finder and how it is built is one of the most important decisions you’ll make.

Simple Build

A simple build is a great option for institutions looking to leverage features that already exist within a CMS toolkit. In this case, the program finder acts like a router, with the goal of quickly driving visitors to program pages (further increasing the importance of our earlier recommendation!).

A simple build typically presents all academic programs on equal footing and in one place. It offers the chance to organize programs into groups by degree type, college, level, etc., to help visitors quickly find or discover an area of study.

Elmhurst College’s Majors and Minors page is a great example of a simple build that also uses a streamlined presentation structure.

Existing structures within your page templates, such as tabs or accordions, can provide a way to organize programs without building a custom interface. The Graduate Programs page on Mendoza College of Business’ website uses tabs to present content in a filterable way.

Custom Build

Many college and universities list out majors and minors, as in the Elmhurst example above. But a surprising number of institutions do not maintain a master list. We find majors and minors are often siloed by department or college, which is not ideal for prospective students unfamiliar with the institution’s organizational structure. Institutions with a more complex academic structure will benefit most from a custom-built program finder.

If a simple build’s goal is to route visitors quickly, the intent of a custom build is to engage visitors and encourage them to interact with the program finder. Thus, usability must be top of mind. This is a ground-up approach that requires a purposeful content strategy, special design, and unique coding. (You’ll need to modify HTML to allow for a more complex interface.)

A custom build offers two distinct advantages over a simple build:

  1. Interaction: Visitors can find programs based on criteria that are most important to them in a much more interactive way than scrolling through a long list of links.
  2. Information: Visitors can build a mental understanding of the key features of your programs without becoming overwhelmed by the details of any one program.

The most game-changing aspect of the University of North Dakota’s new site is the university-wide, comprehensive program finder that showcases the university’s more than 300 programs. This program finder was custom-built.

The program finder also helped UND solve a rather analog problem: program fact sheets. For every program, UND develops one-page, printable PDF files for admission counselors to bring to college fairs and high school visits. mStoner custom-built a feature into the program finder that generates PDFs of program page content on the fly, as a visitor requests it.

This solved the need for sharing program fact content without requiring UND to maintain something separate. In the first two months after launch, almost 900 program PDFs were requested by site visitors. In January 2019, at the height of when prospective students submit applications for enrollment, a record-setting 11,000 program PDFs were downloaded.

4. View: Give List and Grid Options

Grid view and list view are two ways to arrange the content within your program finder. Offering both views is important because they (ideally) replace program hierarchies that do little to help a visitor find what they need about your institution’s programs. These views quickly build visitor awareness of your academic portfolio, providing a more substantive argument for your academic breadth than simply saying, “We have a wide variety of programs.”

Grid View Benefits

  • A grid view can incorporate images, giving a unique design aesthetic and feel for each program.
  • This view is very explorative; it gives a prospective student who might not know what they want to study a clearer “image” of what certain programs are like.

The University of North Dakota program finder is a visually stunning, searchable example: It presents all of its program pages in one place.

List View Benefits

  • This option makes scanning easy. A list view is more condensed; you can fit more on the page.
  • A list view is easy to read and parse, leading to better testing in usability studies.
  • A list view is advantageous for a prospective student who has a better idea of what they want to study or already has an interest in a specific field of study.

A terrific hybrid example is found on Johnson and Wales University’s website. When you visit the Explore JWU Programs page, program offerings are presented in a grid view (Fig. 1). Once a visitor selects a program — let’s pick Business — the finder then filters the page into a list view and shows only the relevant Business-related degrees. This information is presented as a scannable list that shows available degree offerings and locations. (Fig. 2).

— Fig. 1 grid view of Johnson and Wales University program finder.

— Fig. 2 list view of Johnson and Wales University program finder.

Three final things to consider:

  1. Use a consistent copywriting approach and clear calls to action for your programs.
  2. Understand the number of programs offered and the required amount of categorization and taxonomy necessary to provide a great user experience. Generally, the larger and more complex, the more important it is to have a list view option.
  3. Remember that both grids and lists can directly link to program pages or push to multiple degree pages.

Bonus Tip: Remember Your Audience

After conducting three years of research with prospective students, we know there’s often a significant disconnect between what prospective students value and what higher education marketing and enrollment professionals believe they value.

Don’t forget the most important question to ask when considering a program finder: Is my institution’s target audience finding what they need when they search our site for program offerings?

Ready to evolve your digital strategy and take visitor engagement to the next level?

If you’re interested in brainstorming ideas or exploring academic program finder options for your college or university site, let’s find a time to chat.

  • Mallory Willsea Director of Marketing and Business Development Proud ENFJ, here! What does that mean for mStoner, besides entertaining colleagues with my wit and charm? I'm a problem-solver and enjoy working through our potential client's challenges to identify solutions and how a partnership with mStoner will bring value.