Imagine you are a prospective first-generation college student, seeking to attend an institution of higher education in efforts to obtain economic mobility. Chances are your first steps (among many) will include visiting the websites of colleges and universities of interest.
What will you find on your online search?
Well, if you visited the Community College of Aurora’s website prior to May 2023, you would have discovered more than 5,500 webpages of content. Today, our website has fewer than 300 pages.
As educators, how can we possibly expect to increase our enrollments, promote the mission of our institutions, effectively communicate our academic offerings, and engage prospective (and current) college students inclusively with college websites that function more like online file cabinets? It is time to stop this foolishness.
Embracing Accessibility by Design
For far too long, college and university websites have been designed with the assumption that published information is accessible information. This is not true. Accessible, by definition, means “capable of being reached; easy to speak or deal with; capable of being understood or appreciated; or easily used or accessed by people with disabilities.”
As we reflect on accessibility, there are two sides to this coin higher education must account for, figuratively speaking. First, it is imperative for college websites to embrace the responsibility we have to be inclusive with all digital content for individuals with a disability, as outlined in Colorado House Bill 21-1110. Second, and the main topic I’m discussing here, colleges have a responsibility to ensure their websites reflect the inclusivity they frequently speak of. Not just with images of students of color and varied identities smiling around their campuses, but by developing content using resources like the Flesch Reading Ease Score to support readability for the diverse communities we serve.
Over the span of one year, Community College of Aurora asked four critical questions of our website’s effectiveness and accessibility. First, who are we serving? Second, who is our desired audience? Third, what is the information this audience needs? Fourth, how are we making information accessible to this audience?
In deep consideration of these questions, we discovered that our website was not a “front door” reflection of our college’s vision statement: We aspire to be the college where every student succeeds.
Pedagogically, educators are taught to plan, teach, and assess learning around the needs and abilities of students. Student-centered learning, as it is known, provides educators a framework to place the needs and uniqueness of each student at the center of the educational experience. Such an approach empowers educators to design student-centered institutions.
However, the lead question I pose is, do your college and university websites reflect student-centeredness? Can visitors effectively navigate your website to call to actions that promote a seamless digital experience that in turn promotes a sense of belonging? If not, now is the time to do something about it.
It may not be easy. When the Community College of Aurora several years ago recognized the need to overhaul its site, an array of challenges prevented the work from occurring. At one point, our college made the decision to change vendors and start our efforts all over from scratch. Why? Because our administration came to understand and value the need for our institution to partner with a website developer that best represented the dynamic and progressive approach our college is seeking to serve our students.
Blair Lee, my college’s executive director of strategic communications and alumni relations, served as project champion for our website redesign. As Lee shared with me, “Completely overhauling our institutional website was no easy lift, it required a significant amount of departmental cross-collaboration to ensure all the necessary stakeholders were at the table to have their voices heard and validated.”
But we knew the effort would be worthwhile. Lee further expressed, “The goal was to build a site that at its core would be used as a tool to drive enrollment, streamline communication, engage current students and would be a ‘digital utopia’ that told our story to site visitors beautifully.”
The approach we took, he added, “made certain that those who would be impacted had an opportunity to give their input prior to going to launch.”
Defining the Purpose of Our College Website
Through research and engagement, I was able to recognize as college president that our website was wrongly attempting to be all things to all people. Our current students, prospective students, and their parents were having to navigate a monstrosity of information and we (the college) were just hoping the information was accessible.
Data showed that visitors to our former website spent an average of 30 seconds each visit. Remarkably, since going live with our new website, visitors are now spending three minutes and 15 seconds on average navigating our website. In addition, our redesigned site has seen a 15 percent increase on our “apply” webpage, which for our institution essentially operates as an inquiry database.
“College websites were important before the pandemic. We counted on them to provide access to information and services. Post-pandemic, instead of access, websites are drivers of action,” says Clair Collins, vice president of enrollment management and pathway success at my institution. “As the ‘first look’ option for most students, websites are now the primary method schools [use to] generate leads, communicate their mission and vision, and drive engagement. To capture student information and maintain healthy enrollment, a strong web presence with clear calls to action has become vital.”
We have more changes planned for the future, too. Because more than 50 percent of our students are first-generation college students, more than 50 percent are students of color, more than 30 percent identify as Hispanic or Latino, and more than 70 countries are represented at our institution, it was imperative that our college website represent our proud federal Hispanic-Serving Institution designation. This fall, our college is planning to go live with a Spanish-only version of our entire website, and efforts are underway to develop and identify a third language navigation.
Now, more than ever, we have a responsibility as educators to create curriculum and learning environments that honor and account for the diversity of our evolving communities. I hope that our experience will inspire your institution to make its digital presence more welcoming and useful for your prospective and current students.