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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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
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
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).
Three final things to consider:
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?
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.