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What prospective students actually want from your university website.

The research teams at NAGAP and HALDA combined their effort to figure out what prospective students look for in your website through which they enroll themselves in higher education institutes. 

We surveyed 161 professionals from the Graduate Enrollment Management (GEM) community as well as 529 individuals who were researching graduate school options online in late 2021 and early 2022. Both the groups were given the same set of questions in an attempt to compare and contrast perceptions and lived experiences. 

The study, which primarily relied on surveys and questionnaires, identifies a mismatch between what institutions think prospective students seek from the institute's website and what students need.

Role of Your Website in a Student’s Application

Studies show that the modern tech-savvy generation uses the university’s main website to gather information about their prospective universities along with social media. 

The majority of these students are ‘stealth applicants,’ meaning they apply online directly without contacting the university. In fact, 50% of the enrolled students cited the university website's persuasion as the sole reason for their decision. This emphasizes the importance of an easily accessible, well updated, and a sharp university website to engage with the stealth applicants. 

What’s more, our survey shows that 91% of prospective graduate students use your website to research programs, 76% of which do so from day 1 of their research.

However, 44% of the prospective students report that finding the information they needed wasn’t easy. As a result, only 1% (or less) of them filled out an RFI form.

The prospective students that are visiting your web pages represent the best quality source of candidates for you to pull from in your efforts to hit your enrollment targets. The goal of your institution should be to provide more help to such students and meet them where they are in an effort to capture more inquiries earlier in the process.

GEM Perspectives vs Students Perspectives

Here are the findings from our survey:

1.  The Reasons Prospective Students Visit Your University Website

Both GEM professionals and prospective students were asked the same question about why students visit websites during their graduate program research. Surprisingly, there emerged to be a stark difference in the perspective of GEM professionals and the actual reason for students’ visits.

More than half (52.80%) of GEM members believed students primarily use the website to gather details of the program in order to compare and contrast their school options. 

In contrast, only 22.71% of students agreed with that reasoning. Students reported that they leverage the content on your website at each stage of their process:

  • 24.92% to check admission criteria for their program of interest
  • 22.71% to gather details to compare and contrast their grad school options 
  • 20.5% to figure out the right program, 
  • 19.56% to start or continue the work on their applications
  • 12.31% for other (financial aid) reasons. 

Survey question number 1

Bottom line: As most students visit the website to understand if it’s a good fit for them, your website becomes an essential factor in their decision-making process. It’s not just a tool students use to compare other programs. This shows how your website is more central than you thought it to be.


2. The Ease of Finding Information on an Institution’s Website

We asked both communities to rank their institution’s website for ease of use. With the majority of students finding the website easy to use, the responses to this question by the two groups were closely similar. 

However, our GEM community was slightly more critical than the students using the site from the other side:

How helpful was a website survey question


3. Useful Tools and Features on a University’s Website

We asked students what tools and features were most useful to prospective students, and responses from the Graduate Enrollment Management community and students were most misaligned in this category. The analysis of the responses shows us clear space for improvement. 

GEM professionals overestimate the value generated by video, SMS, and chat by an average of 169%. This overvaluation of video and chat has major consequences on how they use the resources to attract applications. 

What’s more, the most aligned answer on helpful tools is the section on general program information. At first, you may be tempted to celebrate that both parties agree that this is the most helpful content. However, when you compare the paragraph text that is used to convey the details with the personalized experiences that are available to consumers when they interact with other national and global brands, this point becomes rather depressing. The most helpful thing we do right now on our websites is provide generalized paragraph text. That’s sad.

It should not be surprising, therefore, that our websites only convert less than 1% of visitors into completed RFI inquiries on average. 

Survey question regarding helpful features

The overestimation of the value of video and chat has serious implications on how your teams choose to allocate finite resources to recruit future classes. When GEM Professionals were asked “What type of content or features would you most like to add to your website?” video and chat floated to the top once again.

Outside higher education, 86% of video marketers believe that video has been effective for lead generation. We believe that video is impactful and admissions professionals should use it. However, this study suggests that our historical approach to this medium in higher education is not resonating with today’s graduate prospects. (Do we really need another drone fly-over shot of campus?)

Bottom line: Before investing time and resources into creating a video, take a moment to pause and consider what kind of video content will be most helpful to prospective students. This study suggests that the commercial-style video promos of the past are not resonating with today’s students. A little research with your specific audience can go a long way in guiding you toward the right type of content.


The Problem: Mismatch between Your Website and Students’ Requirements

As stated earlier, 91% of prospective graduate students use higher education websites to research the programs available, with 76 percent doing so from day one. 

The issue arises when a whopping 44% of them have problems gathering the information they require, with only 1% are submitting an RFI form. 

The students who are already visiting your website know your brand and are interested in your programs. They are the lowest hanging fruit for your admissions and recruitment teams. Some of them will become stealth applicants, but hundreds more will heed the siren call of your competitors, never knowing all that you had to offer.

Capturing information from the students anonymously browsing your pages should take precedence over any name buy, ad campaign, or other “cold” marketing outreach. The Solution: Understand Your Ideal Persona and Key Moments In Their Journey

Meet Greta.

Greta graduated from college 6 years ago, and has been working hard to advance her career at Amazon and pay off the $30,000 in student loans that hangs over her head. (Source)

The audience stats of the survey

She is motivated by the prospect of enhancing the career that she has embarked on, and, not too surprisingly, she is most concerned about taking on even more student debt.

The type of audience completing the survey

After feeling like she has hit that glass ceiling, she grits her teeth and decides that it is time for her to get serious about exploring graduate options that will take her to the next level. 

Greta is one of the 76% of prospective graduate students who visit their chosen institute's website. But like others, she is surprised by how inconvenient most websites are in giving the information she requires. 

Being internet-raised like most of her peers, she has profound knowledge of how online marketing strategies involving personalized customer experience work. But to her displeasure, the most valuable takeaway from her experience with her preferred institute’s website was merely in the form of general information. 

The website offers no easy way to personalize information about how she can afford her degree. Instead, she robotically presented with standard calls to action that completely miss the mark: “Apply Now,” “Learn More,” and “Contact Us”. 

Remember that she’s most likely already working full-time. Considering that, the time it takes to explore alternatives in this scenario of digging through impersonal paragraphs of text, confusing processes, and generic drip advertisements force her to spend years deciding whether or not to return to school. 


Most Effective Forms of Communication

Even after Greta finally shortlists 10-20 institutions and submits RFIs to five of them, things don’t improve. She gets a few personal emails that give her some direction, but then she’s flooded with a bunch of unnecessary information.

According to the surveyed students, the most effective form of communication for them was personal emails, followed by general emails and personal phone calls. Texting and chatbots rank in the murky middle due to the lack of personalization:

The personal information of the audience


How Can You Be More Helpful to Prospective Students?

The example of Greta shows the burden we put on a prospective student who has a simple desire of enhancing her career. We make it so difficult for them that they end up sometimes wavering back and forth about returning to school for years.

Is there any way you can be more helpful to provide a personalized, white-glove experience to her? Can we try and ease the burden on our prospective students?

We certainly can.

As demographics shift and new competition for education and upskilling emerge, providing a personalized white-glove experience to prospects is increasingly becoming a must-have for enrollment professionals committed to meeting their targets.

If you optimize your website according to your prospects’ needs, you can immediately stand out. HALDA’s Smart Forms are certainly not the only way to personalize the experience on your website and convert more visitors into qualified inquiries, but it sure makes the job fast and easy! With smart forms, HALDA helps you optimize your conversion rate by providing the applicants with a better research experience. You can increase the inquiries coming from your website by five times. Try it for free today and be surprised by just how many inquiries you have been missing.

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