Many prospective students have never heard of your college or university, and a few decades ago, the only way you could have reached them is through a mailing. But with the internet, the world is at their fingertips, which means that with targeted advertisements and solid Google search rankings, students who may have never considered your institution can now learn everything they need to know and more, simply by reading your website.
That’s why it’s so important that your website is attractive and informative. After all, you only get one chance to make a first impression.
What are the 8 tips for great higher education website design?
- Tell a story with your content.
- Form follows function.
- Create positive emotional connections.
- Focus on your institution’s branding.
- Create a guided pathway.
- Address multiple audiences.
- Be interactive.
- Create visual interest.
Why Does Higher Ed Website Design Matter So Much?
A recent study found that the number of prospective students is on the decline, decreasing as much as 15 percent in 2026. Can your school withstand a 15 percent decrease in admissions dollars?
The reason your higher ed website design matters so much is that when researching, students begin with your website. Think of it as the front door to your college or university. Overall, 76 percent of sophomores, juniors, and seniors surveyed in the 2019 E-Expectations® Trend Report say they start with the website for more information and then complete forms to get specifics about programs, admission requirements, and campus life. Your design has to accommodate for the way that students interact with and use the information your college or university provides.
The Keys to Great Higher Ed Web Design
Creating a great higher ed website design for your college or university is not rocket science. All you have to do is think like a student. What information are they searching for? How do they like the information delivered? And can they actually access the information they want and need?
The three most important aspects of higher education web design are:
- Usability, or how easy your site is to use.
- Accessibility, so that anyone with a disability can access the information on your website.
- User Experience, or the entire experience of interacting with your website, from design to information to engagement.
What do I need to know about usability?
Usability is how user-friendly your website is to anyone who visits it. It includes how easy something is to learn, how quickly a visitor can accomplish tasks, whether the visitor can remember how to use your website after periods of non-use, what errors are made, and how pleasant or frustrating your website is to use. Additionally, responsiveness is crucial. Your website should load the right page on any mobile device in a second or two. If it lags or the design doesn’t quite translate on mobile, you run the risk of losing prospective students who expect instant access.
A recent study by Microsoft found that today’s average attention span is 8 seconds—a second less than the 9-second attention span of a goldfish. Because of instantaneous access, our ability to focus for extended periods of time has actually decreased. In other words, you have 8 seconds tops to wow your prospective students and prompt them to engage with your website.
What do I need to know about accessibility?
Accessibility is no longer a courtesy—it’s the law. Anyone with a disability is entitled access to the same information as anyone else. If you are ignoring this key principle of great higher ed website design, then you’re also missing out on 11 percent of traffic from prospective and existing students who have a disability. Maintain accessibility compliance by ensuring that your website is perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. You can also run a free accessibility scan to pinpoint problems.
Don’t guess whether your site is compliant. Download The Complete Guide to Digital Accessibility Compliances for Colleges and Universities to ensure that you understand and execute accessibility requirements as dictated by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
What do I need to know about user experience?
User experience includes usability and accessibility, but it is so much more. This
holistic way of thinking about interaction encompasses the entire experience for your
site visitors—how they identify with and need what your website has to offer, how
the website design makes them feel, and if they feel connected to your website in
a personal and helpful way.
When assessing your college or university’s branding efforts, consider the purpose and intent of your content. Great higher ed website design is not just having content for the sake of content, but having intentional, relevant content that moves the reader to action. Again, thinking like your audiences will help you shape your messaging.
A prospective student wants to hear from other students about interactions with professors, what it’s like to live in a specific dorm, and what dining halls they prefer. Parents, on the other hand, want to know about safety, academics, and costs—and they want to hear from experts. Likewise, donors want to know how their money will be spent, so it makes sense to have stories from students who have been impacted by their generosity.
A well-designed website follows the basic design principle that form follows function. No matter how beautiful your website is, it must work efficiently, effectively, and flawlessly to keep visitors engaged. To do this, invest in a professionally designed website, create and produce strong content, and use a powerful content management system (CMS) to keep that content up to date on your website. A few other design tips are:
- Use White Space: White space makes it easier for your eyes to follow words. It also provides contrast on each page.
- Provide Contrast: Higher contrasts make text more readable.
- Consider Fonts: A well-designed website is easy on the eyes, so avoid fonts that are difficult to read or too small. You might also consider using sans serif fonts for the body of your text, as this type of font has a slightly higher readability than serif fonts (fonts that have small lines at the ends of characters to delineate each letter).
– Image courtesy of cinqpoints.com
Humans give meaning to objects, things, time periods, places, and other elements in life. If you can tap into the positive emotional connections of your audience, then they will transfer that positivity to your website. That’s a good thing. There is an entire body of science about emotional design, but again, think like a student and choose colors, images, and even wording that has positive connotations to your target audiences.
For example, the color red is associated with entertainment and excitement. Puppies,
flowers, and people laughing evoke happiness, and text written in relatable, encouraging
voices and tones leave students with positive feelings.
There are more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States, and you’re all “selling” the same types of services. How are you going to stand out from the crowd?
Your college or university can distinguish itself through branding. Color, shape, logo, and images are all key branding elements to include in great higher education web design, but branding also plays into how you shape the messaging for programs and experiences your school offers. Tips for consistent branding include:
- Be consistent, which is made easier if you have a CMS with consistent, customizable templating.
- Be strategic by finding what makes your college unique and then playing upon these aspects in your branding.
- Be rigid in enforcing your branding so that your look is consistent from ads to athletics to academics to your website.
Don’t wait to add branding to your site. Download our white paper College and University Website Redesign: The Ultimate Guide to learn how to incorporate branding throughout your website redesign.
“Guided pathways” is the new buzzword in higher education web design for good reason. A guided pathway simplifies choices for students by creating deliberate, clear paths for degrees and academic programs. Ideally, students are guided from idea to a degree program, through the requisite classes, and finally to a specific career path. This is a holistic approach that necessitates full campus cooperation. However, your website is where students will actually see the paths laid out.
Great higher ed web design incorporates a guided pathway model, so look at schools who are doing this right and figure out ways you, too, can implement this format.
Your website must be all things to all audiences, but rather than confuse your messaging,
make sure to delineate “paths” for each target. The easiest way to do this is in your
navigational structure. While you’ll have pages that are relevant to all, it is helpful
for site visitors to land on pages where the information they want is displayed.
Landing on a static page with no place to go is a guaranteed way to increase your
website’s bounce rate. Instead, think about how students can interact with your site.
Add videos for them to watch, quick surveys to complete, and forms to get more information.
The more prospective students feel like your website is a personalized resource, the
more they’ll visit and explore.
Finally, a picture really is worth a thousand words. The more you can show videos and images of real people doing real things on your college or university campus, the more relatable your school will seem. Students consistently choose candid shots of college and university students as the top images they want to see from a college.
You can also create visual interest with color and informative and readable charts, graphs, calendars, and timelines.
There is a lot to consider when designing your college or university website, but if you take the time to think through every decision before you commit, you’ll avoid having to make fundamental changes once your website is complete.
If you are considering a website redesign to elevate your school’s digital presence, check out our white paper College and University Website Redesign: The Ultimate Guide, or contact us for information on how a dynamic CMS can help.