Highlighting our product: The goal of academic program pages

This week on the WebLife project, we are buildingbuildingbuilding the pages for the School of Dentistry’s new academics site. The site is set to go live in September and we’re on schedule and feeling good about the way the site is coming together. As we make decisions daily about wording, pictures, statistics and links, we are keeping in mind the question we know prospective students are asking when they look around at dental schools around the country: Is this school a good fit for me?

Prospective students are looking at price, competitiveness, career prospects upon graduation (and many other factors, of course) when they check out a college or university’s website. And while we tell the story of the Health Science Center on our website, we must not lose sight of the fact that the prospective student is looking for the story of “me” within the site. Prospective students, often, are going straight to information about the program to which the student might apply.

And that’s why individual academic programs are getting the most (virtual) real estate on the new site. The bulk of the new Web pages, in fact, will either be about specific programs or have information that gives prospective students the details they need to decide if a program is good fit.

A recent webinar by Doug Gapinski, a strategist at mStoner, an agency that helps higher education, validated the plans we have for the School of Dentistry academics website. Just as soup is the product Campbell's is selling, academic programs are the product we're offering to prospective students at the Health Science Center.
A recent webinar by Doug Gapinski, a strategist at mStoner, an agency that helps higher education, validated the plans we have for the School of Dentistry academics website. Just as soup is the product Campbell’s is selling, academic programs are the product we’re offering to prospective students at the Health Science Center.

What about faculty members, the history of the school or student life? We will have those details, but research shows that good program pages are crucial to a successful academic website.

Why? Programs are our product, to quote Doug Gapinski, strategist at mStoner, a communications agency that focuses on higher education. Just as tacos are to Taco Cabana and shoes are to New Balance, programs are what we as a university tailor to each student. Instead of thinking of our Website as a book, with the home page as our cover and other sections as chapters of that book, we have to think of what we’re offering and how our prospective students look through our site. Prospective students may browse through all the programs, but the student is really only looking at the DDS program or for a certain specialized certificate. The prospective student will then dig deeper and learn all about that program. So our program pages have to be as helpful and targeted as possible.

academic website program pages
You’d think cost would be the top item for online readers of a college website, right? This graphic, prepared by Doug Gapinski, strategist for the mStoner agency, shows that cost is a big deal, but details about specific academic programs are a top priority. This graphic gives statistics on undergraduate institutions, but the statistics should apply to the Health Science Center, too, because instead of “seniors”, we know that students applying to a professional school have more of a say in deciding on the school than their parents.

Gapinski says it better than I can when he explains why program pages need to shine:

  • Because students will spend tens of thousands of dollars for this degree, program pages must demonstrate the value the student will receive. A dry list basic requirements or simply offering an application deadline won’t do.
  • Program pages allow universities to differentiate themselves by explaining in detail what an individual student’s experience will be. Prospective students are checking out a lot of different schools around the country, but they are focusing on one little academic unit. Program pages can help narrow down the prospect’s choices.
  • Gapinski compares a website home page to a Swiss Army knife, a tool meant to accomplish a lot of tasks. A program page, on the other hand, Gapinski said, is a state-of-the-art surgeon’s tool, intended for a very select group. When we’re putting together program pages for the new website, we need to think about that student and the focused way a student is trying to find more information.

Is a smart program page going to make or break a student’s decision to attend the Health Science Center? I hope not. I wouldn’t want to attract a student who is so superficial that he or she is making a major life decision based on the Health Science Center’s website. But a robust, helpful website is an expectation students have and gives students a sense of the professionalism and culture here. Our website pages will gently move the student along to ask more questions, fill out that application and pay a visit.

Have you recently gone through a college search yourself or with a family member? What helped you when you were browsing colleges online? I’d welcome your thoughts in the comment section.

Article Categories: About the WebLife Project, Content Strategy

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