I had the pleasure of spending Thanksgiving with 11 other wonderful family members this year. Two of them were my cousins, ages 14 and 16. The 14 year old is a freshman in high school already actively and excitedly thinking about college, and the 16 year old is a junior in high school narrowing down the pool. They are both incredibly bright, talented girls. Speaking with them yesterday gave me a greater insight into their passions and interests related to college, and how the college search process looks through their lenses.

While having these conversations with them about their subject areas of interest, and then turning to the computer to do some research with them, I found a few things:

  • Information architecture on many college sites still below par. How is it 2011 and so many of us still haven’t figured this out yet – or haven’t been able to get the resources to assist?
  • Too many university sites were organized by school/college and didn’t have an alphabetical list of majors. Or, better yet, have an intelligent bot that could find ‘majors like this’ based on keywords you type in. The 14 year old has ideas of her interests in the everyday language that she uses — but trying to match that with what various colleges name their majors/minors and trying to figure out what school they landed in? Ridiculous.
  • Search on many university sites still returns useless results.
  • Using Nintendo DS as a mobile device to access your university’s site is a scary reality.
  • Location and your unique selling point may not be so unique.

Naming majors/minors

Are you using market research and/or conducting market studies on the viability of new programs before just launching into them? And how are they named on your campus? There are a great number of faculty with their pulse on the market, and are typically the ones that are coming up with new majors and shepherding them through the process to begin offering them. But, I also know this process is often done in a vacuum. A constant reality check should include — what will a 14 -17 year old think this is called? Will they be able to even tell you have the major/minor they’re interested in?


Organizing academic programs

Higher ed websites are largely political. I get it. This has been another battle we’ve been fighting for more than a decade. But I need to say it again — don’t organize your information architecture based on your internal organizational structure. I understand many universities admit by school and have a vested interest in branding their schools. But at the start of the admission funnel – when a 14 year old is trying to figure out what she wants to do is called – being organized by school is not helpful.


Search still largely returns unhelpful results

Google Mini Search Appliances aren’t all that expensive. They can be customized like crazy. Most of the school sites we searched (because we had to give up on the information architecture and primary navigation) returned the most unhelpful search results. Are you regularly reviewing your search logs to see what terms users are searching your site for? We used to do this monthly at SUNY New Paltz. It was a fascinating way to learn what people were looking for. It gave us some insight in terms of what could help make easier to find, but balancing that with the fact that some web users just prefer to use search over primary navigation.


Is your content Nintendo DS friendly?

Prior to yesterday, I had never once seen one of these devices. I’m actually surprised at all they can do – including hopping on the Internet. The 14 year old uses it like crazy for Facebook. What does your site look like in a Nintendo DS browser? Dave Olsen wrote a great post about content strategy and the mobile platform that I think applies here (without knowing the actual technicals behind the scenes). If you’re still on the fence between apps and mobile-friendly sites, I strongly encourage you spend your time on the mobile delivery across all browsers and devices first and foremost. However – don’t forget your primary site. Build a more solid foundation there related to the topics I mentioned above, but don’t waste too much time – because these kids and their newfangled devices will leave your college in the dust if they can’t see it on the device they are using.
Speaking of her using her Nintendo DS for Facebook — she also had no idea colleges and universities had a presence on Facebook. She’s also too early in the funnel to care. She’s still figuring out what various colleges call her major and minor of interest!


“Close enough, but far enough away”

At one college I worked with, they thought that statement was their unique selling point. Location. Students regularly said they chose College X because they wanted to be close enough to their families, but far enough away that they felt they really went away to college. (Typically within a two hour radius.) I’ve now heard this at other colleges from other students as part of the reason they chose their college, and it was one of the first things both of my cousins said to me on Thanksgiving. Takeaway? Every college can be close enough but far enough away from home if your primary market is within a two hour radius. That’s not a unique selling point. Keep digging.


Keep digging

I’m going to continue this experiment with them – primarily because of my vested interest in their personal and professional success, but they’re also providing an interesting reality check related to my professional interests. I’ll be spending a bit of time with them again on Christmas Eve, and can’t wait to pick their brains again.


Anonymous · November 28, 2011 at 10:06 am

“have an intelligent bot that could find ‘majors like this’ based on keywords you type in”

This is a really great idea. Rather than forcing students to browse based on our internal degree structure, offer them the chance to search for keywords or interests and allow us to do the legwork of matching it to our program offerings. Love it. 

Anonymous · November 28, 2011 at 7:42 pm

I second the motion of a major finder. 

Andy Shaindlin · November 28, 2011 at 9:08 pm

Interesting insights from the target audience, thanks for sharing this. I have a question – just from curiosity – do your cousins know you’re blogging about this, and have they read this post? Maybe the older one could guest blog on this topic as she completes the process… Good luck to them both!

rachelreuben · November 28, 2011 at 9:18 pm

They don’t know, but only because I haven’t had a chance to share with them yet today. Guest blogging is a really awesome idea. I’ll see if I can connect with them this week. 🙂

Mary Ann Hill · November 30, 2011 at 10:46 am

Spot on, Rachel. My daughter is a HS senior and has most of her applications in already, but your experience mirrors hers and mine, especially regarding majors and supposedly unique selling points. Faculty who really care about teaching undergrads (check); close community with diversity of interests (check); excellent academics (check); tremendous internship/study abroad/mentoring programs (check).

Admissions folks, check your site to see if your so-called application check-list is comprehensive. My daughter found it amazingly difficult to find out if SAT Subject Tests were required at several schools. And I, who’ve worked at a college & with college clients and am very adept at scoping out sites, also did. Whew!

Going to send your tip for reviewing search logs each month to one of my clients. Great idea.

Anonymous · November 30, 2011 at 12:58 pm

While some (like graduate students) may find degree searches by school/college to be easier or more intuitive, I agree with the premise here that finding degree programs by subject is more universal (especially for undergraduates). At DU, we have more or less gone this route: http://www.du.edu/learn/undergraduates/degreeprograms.html

This method of degree finding has been in use for a couple of years now. It is based on research conducted years ago and reaffirmed by new studies.

Scott · November 30, 2011 at 1:42 pm

The most bewildering part of the college search process for me was not about the college Web sites, but about their communications with my son.  We would visit Acme College and two weeks later he would get a postcard from Acme inviting him to visit.  Almost never was there follow-up communication premised on the fact that he had actually visited.  It was like the forms we filled out in connection with the visit went into a black hole and the postcards and emails were spit out randomly based on some list from ACT/SAT, but never once were the list of visitors and the ACT/SAT list correlated in such a way the the college could say, “Hey, this kid is on our list of high ACT scores and other desirable criteria AND he actually stopped by three monts ago!  Maybe we should target him.”

Marcy Gineris · November 30, 2011 at 3:58 pm

Great insights, Rachel! The difference between an org chart and a working content architecture is immense, but it is still difficult to convey that to some faculty and staff. Thanks for sharing your take-aways!

Benjamin Costello · December 5, 2011 at 9:01 am

Very nice – thank you 🙂

Anonymous · December 14, 2011 at 1:34 pm

Higher ed is typically highly decentralized in its operation. A customer management tool that would be used to prevent the issues you outline simply don’t exist university wide at many institutions. Thus, you get an unconnected pool of knowledge and the right hand not knowing what the left is doing.

Kelly Hansen822 · December 5, 2013 at 5:36 am

I really like this post…Your college search process very useful for me and my family..Thanks for sharing above information…
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