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March 9

Your School Website: What Prospective Students Look For


by | Mar 9, 2023 | Featured, School Websites, Tools

With all the massive amount of information your school website needs to convey, it can be difficult to decide exactly what you need to focus on that will resonate with prospective students.

Add to this the many voices across all the departments that are asking for the website to provide this or to do that for their needs, and you’ve got a really confusing project on your hands.

Yet another trap I’ve seen damage many education websites is the instinct to focus everything on the school. 

Too often, colleges and universities put themselves on a pedestal on their school website. 

Be it celebratory news stories, sporting events, or faculty profiles, higher ed institutions sometimes neglect the most important patrons of their website: prospective students.

In this episode of The Higher Ed Marketer podcast, Bob Johnson, Ph.D., Founder of Bob Johnson Consulting, LLC, tells us why every school should focus their website on enrollment marketing and what things they need to get right.

Leveraging Inquiry Forms

My first higher ed website was in 1997 when I helped publish a website for my alma mater.

They heard that I was doing websites and asked me to be a part of theirs. 

A lot has changed since then in digital marketing, and with these changes has come a truly powerful strategy that is available in almost every modern CRM, personalization.

Powerful digital marketing and CRM’s allow almost every marketer to send mass communications in a strikingly personal way.

Of course, to implement personalized mass communication, you’ve got to have a robust database filled with your prospective students’ information which you capture through inquiry forms.

Unfortunately, many school website inquiry forms are only used for data capture—and not for the end goal of personalizing future messaging.

In our conversation, Bob Johnson mentioned how this is one of the biggest mistakes he sees schools making.

I think this is one of the major marketing mistakes that almost every college and university in the land makes. 

They collect [prospective student] information on their inquiry form—and most of them never refer to it at all in the first couple of weeks of email inquiries.

This is an opportunity that enrollment marketers just aren’t grabbing on to.

Personalization is what Gen Z and beyond want to see! It’s what gets them excited. 

The Power of Personalization

Bob recently started a “secret shopper” project where he goes online acting as if he were a prospective student. 

He visits his client’s school website as well as their competitors and fills out their inquiry forms. 

Here is his experience with a school that just knocked it out of the park.

The client school is only the second school that I’ve ever worked with or been a secret shopper at to use the name of the academic program [I listed] when I filled out their inquiry form. They actually referred to [the academic program I listed] in the first email response I got. 

I’ve only had [such a personalized response] 10 years ago from a regional public university in Wisconsin where I said I was interested in pre-med. 

I got two emails back—the first from the chair of the biology department and the second from the head of the pre-med committee. 

That is masterful, detailed, conversion-oriented, follow-up marketing!

This is an area where so many schools could do so much better work than they do now.

The competitor school inquiry forms he filled out showed just how tone-deaf many school websites can be.

The two other schools are competitors of the client school. Neither one of them paid any attention to what I put down as a program of interest when I filled out the form. 

They’re busy trying to get me to visit campus! A couple of days after I filled out the inquiry form, neither one of them mentioned the academic program that they had asked me about.

What They’re Looking For on Your School Website

Bob has done some incredible research in his career about the top tasks that students, especially traditional undergrad students, are looking for when they arrive on your school website. 

Here are some of the top priorities that prospective students are looking for when they come to your website.

By extension, these are the top issues that your homepage should address as quickly as possible.

Program Availability

Academic program availability is still extremely high. It’s always been high. 

People want to know whether or not you’ve got the program that they’re interested in. 

If they’re already interested in [a program], and they already know you have it, they want to get to your website, and they want to get off the homepage as fast as they can to get to the particular program that interests them. 

So that’s number one.


Number two is cost. We did a top test survey at a university primarily oriented to adult students and what we found out—surprised everyone from the university to us—that cost came out first. 

This was pre-2008. Costs have gone up much higher since 2008! So it was a surprise.

In effect [prospective students] are saying, “We want to know what it’s going to cost us before we go any further on the site.” 

So that’s at least the number two issue right now, (if not number one for many people).

It just makes sense that cost would be a major concern for most prospective students visiting your school website.

But I wouldn’t advise putting the full sticker price right up front. 

The important thing for families to realize is how much they’ll end up spending in the long run after receiving financial aid. 

Bob recommended creating a helpful school website tool to give prospective students an idea of what they can expect to pay.

How can I get an estimate? 

Doesn’t have to be the final word, but how can I get an early estimate in the recruitment process of what it’s going to cost me to go to your school without having to fill out the FAFSA, without having to fill out a pre-FAFSA, or anything like that? 

Please give me an idea what it’s going to cost!

Believe it or not, this tool is already available on the Internet. 

Google has created these knowledge panels for every university in North America. 

Knowledge panels are information boxes that appear on Google when you search for entities (people, places, organizations, things) that are in the Knowledge Graph. They are meant to help you get a quick snapshot of information on a topic based on Google’s understanding of available content on the web.

Knowledge panels are automatically generated, and information that appears in a knowledge panel comes from various sources across the web. In some cases, we may work with data partners who provide authoritative data on specific topics like movies or music, and combine that data with information from other open web sources.
Google Support Article

Basically, they give the graduation rates, the average cost of attendance after financial aid, and other important points of data for many of these schools. 

So that data is out there even before the students are arriving at your school website. 

Google's knowledge panels have curated and display the most critical information your school website should provide.

It’s a very good idea to put the information about tuition and costs upfront and clear.


The number three issue, particularly for adults, but also increasingly for younger students, are outcomes information.

What happens if I go to your school, take your major, and graduate? What happens next? 

Almost no schools have substantive information about outcomes related to particular majors they offer at the school. 

This would be a competitive advantage for schools. It would be a way to differentiate themselves from the majority of schools that don’t.

Most schools put up on the website a percentage of the over 90% of the graduates who are either employed or in graduate school within six months after graduation. 

I have never seen a college or a university that does not have that information. 

But that isn’t really what people are looking for when it comes to outcomes. 

Finding a way to show more robust outcomes information will definitely set you apart. 

How much should a student expect to pay out-of-pocket for your program, and then, how much can they expect to earn afterwards?

While it is complicated to get that kind of information, it is a noteworthy goal that could be a real game changer for your school website.

Discover more when you listen to the podcast!

Like all of our blog post reviews of The Higher Ed Marketer podcasts, there’s so much more to learn in the podcasts themselves.

Listen to our interview with Bob Johnson to get even more insights into:

  • Missed personalization opportunities in lead conversions (8:34)
  • Three top information priorities for school website homepages (12:21)
  • Why everyone needs to follow up on self-reported data (25:24) 

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Featured image by peopleimages via Adobe Stock

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