The question isn’t if higher education web design will change post-pandemic, it’s how.
And when the dust of COVID-19 settles, college and university marketers will be challenged with rewriting their institutions’ story for audiences who have equally different expectations for today’s higher ed experience.
Websites for colleges and universities will be the most visible—and important—faces of these changes. To understand what will and will not change about web design for universities after the pandemic, it’s helpful to look at what exactly happened over the past year.
How did the pandemic impact colleges and universities?
While some of the pandemic’s blow may not be felt by colleges and universities for years to come, several immediate things changed these institutions’ day-to-day operations as well as their leadership’s attitude on the future.
Distance and hybrid learning exploded
Only 4% of colleges in the United States planned to have fully in-person learning for Fall 2020. While online and hybrid learning were growing in popularity before the pandemic, this crisis accelerated the trend exponentially, with the online learning industry now projected to pass $370 billion by 2026. For prospective students, online learning components are no longer special add-ons but expectations for the institutions they’re considering.
Students changed plans dramatically
College plans for Fall 2020 changed in 75% of households. Those changing plans could have meant taking fewer classes, changing institutions or programs, taking a gap year, or dropping out entirely. These rapid and unpredicted changes posed a number of challenges for institutional leaders, ranging from logistical to financial.
A spotlight shined on equity and access to education
Among those students who changed their plans over the pandemic, no group was affected more than low-income students. Most students who decided to cancel their college plans were considered low-income, with affordable and reliable internet access posing one of the greatest challenges to this group. In the United States, over half (53%) of Americans indicate that the internet has been essential for them during the pandemic, but 28% were worried about paying for the internet bill at home, according to a report by educationdata.org. Higher ed leadership is taking notice. In a recent survey, a full two-thirds of college and university presidents (67%) say they are very concerned about COVID-19’s impact on disadvantaged students.
How will these changes impact web design for colleges and universities?
The next step after enduring a period of upheaval is thinking about what comes next. In some cases, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated trends already in motion in higher education marketing. It also exposed a number of problem areas that had already existed but weren’t formerly given attention. College and universities’ websites play an enormous role in the health and success of their enrollment, donor campaigns, and the overall health of their institutions. Looking ahead, web design for colleges and universities will change the most in these three areas.
ADA website compliance matters now more than ever. With a growing shift toward online learning, colleges and universities will need to ensure all content is accessible to most people, regardless of their physical abilities. Some of the most important considerations when striving for an accessible website include designing with adequate color contrast, including alt text for images, and ensuring text size is large enough for people with poor eyesight.
Distance learning is here to stay, and it will only become more prevalent. Institutions will likely invest more in online education LMS design to widen their net of students and meet new student expectations. Naturally, college and university web design will need to accommodate for this growing presence of online learning by creating learning “destinations” on their main sites, offering learning content for a wider audience than simply admitted students.
This signals a significant paradigm shift for higher education in general. But it also opens the opportunity to further democratize learning for more people. Institutions’ web design should make it easy for site visitors to access online learning resources, and then provide them with avenues to further their education.
Bridging the Physical-Digital Divide
Although remote learning is on the rise, online learning experiences have yet to match the quality and perceived value of in-person education. But more than just the quality of the experience, the digital divide speaks to the gap between students with higher and lower incomes.
Students will naturally have many new questions when thinking about applying to an institution because of the pandemic: What percentage of my courses will be in-person? Can I take these courses online? What will these programs cost? Are there any financial aid or scholarship opportunities? The most important job college and university web design has is to answer these questions clearly and concisely. If students cannot find these answers, they will try to fill in the gaps themselves, or worse, simply leave the site completely.
How Will Web Design for Colleges and Universities Stay the Same?
The pandemic changed a lot for higher ed institutions, but it didn’t change some important fundamentals in how they should present themselves online. Higher education marketers will still need to:
Show the Value of Their Educational Experience
Many have called into question the value of the college experience since many institutions went remote during the pandemic. While it has always been an important job of higher ed marketing, now, especially, college and university websites need to clearly justify the price of their tuition by illuminating job prospects, alumni stories, long-term networking opportunities, and other indicators of their institutions’ value propositions. Websites should be able to answer the question: What is the ROI of my experience at this school? The answer doesn’t necessarily need to be in the form of a concrete number, but higher education marketers need to help make the case for the often high tuition through their websites.
Focus on Usability and Discoverability
Higher education websites will continue to compete in the digital world, making their usability and discoverability online just as important as before. Beyond basic web best practices like providing a mobile-friendly experience, college and university websites should also pay attention to the keywords used in their site content as well as their site speed performance, which is another factor Google considers in search results rankings.
By reflecting the language prospective students are using and offering a fast, intuitive online experience, college and university websites can be the helpful agent students will remember during what is typically a stressful and confusing research process.
All in all, COVID-19 has ignited big change in the higher education world—some changes for the better, some arguably for the worse. By combining their awareness of these new trends with sound fundamentals, colleges and universities can use their websites as tools for good: to help prospective students achieve their goals and to help pave the way for whatever big changes come next.