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Portals: How To Give Prospective Students What They Want

College recruits expect a lot from their prospective schools' Web sites, but there are two critical pieces of information they demand from a campus portal--information that should be fairly simple to provide. Is yours delivering what your prospective students want? If not, you may be driving them away.

What if one out of every four prospective students quickly crossed your school off their list of potentials just because they had an unfavorable experience on your Web site? That would mean that 25 percent of your recruits would go elsewhere simply because they couldn't find the right academic information on the site or because your Web presence wasn't linked into their favorite social networking tool.

If the scenario sounds far-fetched, think again. According to a new survey conducted by the National Research Center for College & University Admissions (NRCCUA), educational consultancy Noel-Levitz, and content management solution provider OmniUpdate, 24 percent of students will overlook a school whose Web sites don't meet expectations.

In its fifth year, the E-Expectations survey revealed a few key points that college IT teams will want to pay attention to, and it's not all negative. For starters, 65 percent of students said a positive Web experience would pique their interest in a particular school and/or campus. Thirty-one percent said it was because they found what they wanted, 21 percent because the site worked well, and 14 percent because the content was helpful.

The survey, which was based on input from more than 1,000 college-bound high school students, also found that 92 percent of respondents would be disappointed with a school, or remove it entirely from their lists, if they couldn't find the information they needed on the institution's site. Seventy-six percent of students said they use Facebook, while 33 percent reported using MySpace; and an equal number supported schools creating their own private social networks for prospective students.

2 Critical Questions
Stephanie Geyer, associate vice president of Web strategy services at Noel-Levitz in Coralville, IA, said those colleges that are stuck in their traditional recruitment and information delivery ways are missing the boat when it comes to today's incoming college students.

"It's a challenge for even the most technologically-savvy campus to stay ahead of the curve," said Geyer. "When institutions understand what prospective student expect, they can then focus on the areas that will produce the most productive recruitment results."

Getting there starts with an assessment of students' wants and needs, with an emphasis on two important questions that all recruits want answered: "Do you have the right program for me?" and, "Can I afford to attend your school?"

"These are the key queries that all students--from the 16-year-old high school graduate to the adult learner--will ask," said Geyer, "and they expect to get the answers from the school's Web site."

The problem, said Geyer, is that most college Web sites don't do a very good job of answering those questions. "We see a lot of sites that show organizational structures, and that have decent navigational systems, but they don't drive the user right to a searchable list of academic programs," said Geyer. Schools that do list academic programs often use "weird college systems that don't really go into detail, and that are based on course catalogs and bulletins," she added.

Invest in Research, Writing, and Presentation
"They lack the marketing detail and engagement tools that will make students take the next step and enroll," said Geyer. Many times it's inadequate staffing that holds those institutions back from creating a more complete, user-friendly Web site experience for recruits. With the number of academic programs at any given institution ranging from 20 to more than 200, the writing and editing that goes into an online academic directory can be time consuming.

"You can't just skim the catalogs over and make up some great marketing prose," said Geyer. "You need to work with subject matter experts to pinpoint what's distinctive about that academic program, all the while making sure that the writer understands how to develop Web copy."

The site's navigational structure is also important, according to Geyer, who has seen many colleges take a "catch-all" approach to their Web presences in an attempt to reach every possible visitor. "Institutions often try to serve all of their users and never really define who the primary user will be (in this case, the prospective student)," said Geyer. "As a result, they end up with clunky navigation systems that no one can maneuver through."

With the Web taking center stage for today's younger generations, Geyer said, students will become even more discerning about their online experiences in the future. In the end, she said, those colleges that "get it" will be the ones that create bridges between their academic programs and their marketing strategies in a meaningful way.

"We're seeing a lot more buzz around this in the higher-education space, and I expect that to continue," said Geyer. "Slowly but surely, campuses are realizing that they need to get a handle on it, or risk losing some good prospects."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].

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