Higher Ed Websites: Answering One of the Most Important Questions


You already know that high school students and their parents are using college and university websites as an opportunity to form one of their earliest opinions about an institution. They’ll even remove a college or university from their list based on a poor website experience.

What are students looking for on a college or university website? Annual studies conducted by RNL, Ologie, Stamats and others, give valuable insights into this question. For the past few years there is a piece of information that repeatedly ranks as one of the most important for students beginning their search: “Do you have my major?” With some studies noting that up to 62% of prospective Gen Z’ers have a particular major in mind when they enter college, how do they find the majors and programs that you offer on your website?

We’ve rounded up a few considerations that may be helpful as you review one of the most important areas of your institution’s site.

Major vs. Academic Unit

Many colleges and universities provide a comprehensive list of all their majors or programs. These lists are typically alphabetized, allowing users to scan your programs in an informed manner. Yet many schools still organize their academic offerings by pushing a user through an academic school or department in order to find the majors and programs. This can add credibility with the association of a named academic school (think the Gozuieta School of Business at Emory). However, for smaller institutions without a prominent name to attach to an academic unit, it can be a guessing game for users to find what they’re looking for. Put your user hat on: will a Gen Z’er know what the terms Applied Sciences or Humanities mean?

A happy medium? UPIKE and John Brown University give users the option to view available majors by department, resulting in easy to read lists that still make it easy for users to scan a list of options.

To Filter or Not to Filter

Location. Online format. Minor or concentration. In theory, filtering a list of majors or programs based on other criteria is a great way to refine information (Amazon has trained us well). When it comes to filtering majors or programs by attaching secondary criteria, a lot of schools are doing it. This can get clunky, but Southeastern University’s filter only shows if users need it. The filter criteria is intuitive (program format and program level), and this function still works well on mobile. Messiah College uses a more robust approach with “Filter by Interest” as well as program-type filters within their academic programs section.

Insider Language

A list of programs should be designed to draw users further into your site. Still, word and symbol jargon that is tacked onto these types of pages can easily confuse users. Whether it’s abbreviations, acronyms or a key with symbols and colors, beware of making users decode your internal silos.  

*Side note: Symbols, icons and keys don’t always translate well into a mobile environment, and color isn’t necessarily a great identifier when it comes to accessible web standards. If you are using these kinds of elements make sure you’re periodically reviewing your own institution. Look at the gateway pages for majors or programs on a mobile device and on a computer equipped with a screen reader.

­­­­Other Options

A growing number of schools are using robust exploration tools to allow students to explore areas of interest. Union University’s use of relevant, easy to understand descriptions results in a list of related majors based on interest. Chapman University’s area of interest section uses some terms that have big appeal to Gen Z prospects.

Interested in talking further about opportunities to rethink your school’s website? Our team has recently helped some great institutions do just that. We’re ready to chat when you are.


“The Gen Z Report: Understanding the College-Bound Mindset.” Ologie. 2016. http://studentunion.ologie.com

Tate, Emily (2017). “Prospective Students Seek Information, But Colleges Don't Always Provide.” April 5, 2017. https://www.insidehighered.com

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