Higher Education Marketing Strategy

The Heart and Brain of Picking a College

College graduates throwing caps into the air

By Sean Carton \ February 9, 2018

Why should a prospective student choose your school?

This simple question is ultimately the most important question a college website needs to answer. Why should a prospective student who could potentially choose from just about any other institution in the country choose to attend your school? Why should your alumni choose to support their alma mater when they receive so many other appeals for their support? Why should high-quality prospective faculty choose to teach and do research at your school when they could potentially join the faculty at many of your peer institutions? And why should a student enroll at your school?

Answers to these questions must contain two critical components: the rational – based on tangible metrics such as academic quality, financial support, and location – and the emotional, the harder to quantify reasons that are difficult to articulate but incredibly powerful when it comes to making our decisions.

In a time when your website is usually the first point of contact for those unfamiliar with your school and the connection point for those who already know you, supplying the answer to “Why you?” is a task that falls heavily on your website. And the answer it provides better address both the rational and the emotional.

What makes a website “good”?

Most of what we think of when we think of “good web design” is what typically addresses the rational side. The information on the site, how it’s organized, and how easy it is to access all feed the information-seeking, rational part of the users’ decision-making processes. In general, it’s also the part that’s the easiest to deal with.

There’s been enough research on usability and user experience to establish a set of well-known principles that competent designers and developers can use to create a utilitarian site that’s reasonably easy to navigate and contains the information users need to find so they can complete a decision. If “Why you?” can be answered with statistics, facts, and easy access to information, then creating a website that adequately answers that question shouldn’t be too tough, right?

Well, if decisions were made on the basis of rational, dispassionate comparisons among the alternatives, maybe creating a university website isn’t that hard. However, as anyone who’s ever accompanied a prospective student on a college tour; tried to persuade a recent grad to give; or tried to talk to a disgruntled and disappointed student out of transferring knows, “facts” aren’t enough. They’ve gotta feel it, too.

Give undergraduates what they want, and more.

What do prospective undergraduates want? Typically, the answer is simple: they want to know the cost of attendance, whether or not they can major in what they’re interested in, and assurance that student life is something that matches what they vaguely believe student life should be. However, a recent study on college choice that looked at the behavior — not just self-reported priorities — of over 2,000 prospective student shows that college choice is much more complicated.

The study, conducted by Dr. Darin White, Chair of the Entrepreneurship, Management & Marketing Department in the Brock School of Business at Samford University discovered that choice is often driven by experience, primarily the prospect’s experience with the campus. The campus and its facilities served as signifiers for the prospects, the study found, influencing not just their perception of student life but of academic quality as well. In other words, if the experience was superior, prospects perceived the quality of the institution to be superior. The tangible experience (e.g. the physical campus) was used by prospects to understand or interpret the intangible (e.g. faculty quality).

If you consider how a prospect’s final choice of what institution they’re going to attend often seems opaque (or even arbitrary) to those charged with attracting prospects to the institution, the findings of this study start to bring the murky process of “college choice” into sharper focus.

Prospects (and often their families, especially if the prospect is a first-generation student) often lack the sophistication to truly assess intangibles such as academic quality or the experience to judge student life after a brief campus visit. But they have to go with something, and their own experiences – what they can see, touch, and feel both physically and emotionally – constitute information that they know they can trust. When it comes time to make that decision about where to enroll, experience matters.

Create an experience for all audiences.

The rational and the emotional also come into play when it comes to other audiences, too. The decision to give, for example, is an intensely personal one that happens at the intersection of altruism, experience, engagement, ego, and often just good timing.

Alumni don’t give because they’ve been made to understand the nuances of capital improvements, endowment portfolio performance, and market research. They give because they have a deep connection to the school, want to have an impact on the institution that helped shape their life, and because they’ve been asked.

Prospective faculty don’t accept employment offers based solely on the publication volume of the department that’s pursuing them or the fine details of their compensation offer, but also because they want to become part of the community of the university and their department.

Students who are unhappy because they’ve had a bad experience their freshman year can’t be persuaded to stay by bombarding them with facts about rankings or post-graduation employment statistics. Their decision to stay or go is often contingent on whether or not they feel part of the campus community and their day-to-day experience with the institution.

Answering “Why you?” in a number of different ways.

Asking “Why you?” is easy. Creating a website that answers it fully for all of your audiences isn’t. Prospects don’t just need the facts, they need the experience that helps them truly understand what your brand will mean to them, and how your school’s experience is so clearly different (and better!) than the institutions they’re considering.

Alumni visiting the site should have the same deep connection with their alma mater as they feel when stepping back on to campus after graduation. Members of the campus community need an experience that reminds them of why they chose to become a member of the community in the first place and an online experience that is as good as – if not superior to – the face-to-face experiences they have on campus as faculty, staff, and students.

In short, if it’s successful, your site needs to allow every visitor to answer the question “Why you?” in their own way.

Read our books on this topic and ask us to help!

Sean Carton
VP of Growth + Innovation
Sean Carton
VP of Growth + Innovation

Sean leads our Discover360 engagements, gathering data and research to develop the insights necessary for crafting effective strategies for our clients. He has a perfectly varied background for our higher education and nonprofit partners: He’s served as everything from a dean to an adjunct professor to the co-director of a high school cybersecurity summer camp to the leader of a university 3D printing lab. Sean also has an uncanny talent for creating the perfect meme faster than you can search for one.