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Insight Paper

Do You Have a Higher Education Website Optimization Strategy?

Assess if your .edu website supports your enrollment goals

This white paper was created for enrollment leaders to use with the primary owners of the school’s website. Engage with the web-based version by continuing to scroll, or download the PDF here.


A tool for fostering partnership

Even though college websites play a crucial role in attracting and converting prospective students, they are rarely under the enrollment team’s direct control, typically being owned by a school’s marketing and communications division.

This resource was designed to help enrollment leaders collaborate more effectively with marketing leaders, with an eye to ensuring that the school’s website is doing all it can to support student recruitment while also serving the larger strategic and marketing goals of the institution.

Why the .edu matters for enrollment

Self-service search

One of the most consequential current trends in recruitment marketing is college-bound students’ growing reliance on self-service information channels for learning about schools. From third-party college-ranking websites to student influencers on social networks, the rapidly evolving digital-media landscape is presenting students with an ever-expanding range of information sources for colleges and universities they’re considering.

Successful recruitment marketing depends on effective engagement of students through the self-service information channels they increasingly favor.

A clear first order of business in this regard is the school’s website. There is no information source that students rely on more when researching potential schools. And few other aspects of your interactions with them do more to shape their impressions of you—for better or worse, depending on how compelling an online experience you are providing for them.

“It seriously makes me not want to apply when a school doesn’t care enough about something that is a main source of information for most applicants.”

Sample student comment from Reddit

  • #1

    In 2019, students ranked colleges’ websites as the most helpful information source in their college search vs. ranking it #4 in 2017

  • 86%

    of parents surveyed by EAB said a well-designed website positively impacts their impression of a school

Why getting the .edu right is so hard

Higher ed’s particular challenge

There are good reasons why so many college websites underperform. In fact, if any industry could be forgiven for lagging on advances in website design, a strong argument could be made for higher education topping the list.

Complexity squared

The main reason for this underperformance is the extraordinary complexity of colleges and universities.

All schools comprise several distinct and equally important communities—faculty, nonacademic staff, current students, prospective students, etc.—each with its own particular needs.

When you layer on top of this the inherent complexity of websites, which consist of many interdependent parts and rely on many different individuals for their smooth functioning, the overall picture quickly becomes daunting. Further complicating matters is the high-stakes nature of website development; decisions made during the planning and design phase can lock in the defining features of a website for years.

Barriers to higher education website optimization strategy

  • Constrained by legacy tech

    Much of what makes a website feel the way it does is hardwired into underlying systems at the design phase, making later tweaks difficult

  • Radically interdependent

    Even targeted changes to one part of a website can cascade through to countless other portions of it, quickly creating overwhelming complexity

  • Paralyzed by politics

    Different college departments want different things from the school’s website, prompting endless, momentum-killing negotiations

  • Serving many stakeholders

    College websites must serve various internal and external constituencies with very different needs, which often leads to inscrutable information architecture

  • Costly

    Because creating websites requires expensive, specialized personnel, inexpertly planned projects can quickly generate cost overruns

  • Time-intensive

    Website redesigns can take so long that sites are obsolete by the time they go live

Close coordination between marketing and enrollment is key

An imperative to act

Given the complexity of the typical .edu, there’s not much enrollment leaders can do by themselves to impact its performance. This would be true even if they typically “owned” college websites, which they do not. That said, given the high stakes for recruitment outcomes, inaction is not an option.

A crucial partnership

One answer to this conundrum lies in building effective partnerships with those best positioned to shape the school’s website at its inception and inflect its performance over the long term.

At most schools, this is the executive in charge of institutional marketing—an individual who is uniquely positioned to coordinate the many interested parties who shape a school’s web presence and to ensure that the school’s brand gives coherence to those efforts.

Insofar as healthy enrollment is a core strategic aim of institutional marketing, enrollment leaders should be given special prominence in that group of interested parties.


For the school’s website as a whole:

  • Embodiment of brand standards
  • Design of content management system
  • Information architecture
  • Domain structure
  • Overall performance
  • Stakeholder coordination
  • Content strategy
  • Search engine optimization

For enrollment-active pages:

  • Content
  • User experience
  • Technical performance
  • CRM integration
  • Data analysis and reporting
  • Search engine optimization

Focus on enrollment-active pages

Enrollment’s website purview

Enrollment leaders can and should exert a high degree of influence on portions of the site that most directly impact enrollment outcomes—what might be termed “enrollment-active” pages.

As described below, pages in this category include admissions-related pages as well as ones that describe the school’s academic offerings. Note that these pages typically constitute a small subset of the much larger universe of pages that make up a school’s website.

“Enrollment-active” pages are ones that cover topics of greatest interest to prospective students and their parents, including:

  • Academics (courses of study, disciplines, majors)
  • Campus visits/virtual tours
  • Cost of attendance
  • Financial aid
  • Outcomes
  • Admissions standards and procedures
  • Online application
  • Student life
  • Residences and dining facilities
  • Campus amenities
  • General description of the institution

Focus on high-traffic pages

Some categories of enrollment-active pages, e.g., ones dealing with academics, contain more pages than you can realistically give close attention to. Within these categories, focus on the highest-traffic pages (e.g., those for your most popular majors or disciplines).

A question of initiative

There are several different ways that enrollment leaders can influence the performance of these pages, from owning them outright to working in close, ongoing partnership with their owners.

Whatever the ownership structure, the enrollment team should take a proactive role in defining a vision for these pages, proposing specific plans for them, exercising editorial oversight over them, troubleshooting their technical performance, and measuring their effectiveness.

How should you proceed?

Start Self-Tests
  • Complete the self-tests

    The bulk of this resource consists of self-tests you and other members of your web team can use to assess how well your school’s website is currently serving your enrollment goals. As you work your way through the self-tests, take note of whether your website is meeting each of the performance standards described.

  • Compile a prioritized to-do list

    After completing the self-tests, it will be apparent where the greatest opportunities lie for improving the enrollment performance of your website. Because there may be many such opportunities, throughout the tests we have indicated ones that makes sense for most enrollment teams to prioritize.

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