Higher Education's Responsibility Towards Underrepresented Students

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Students are beginning to push for social change on college campuses with more force than the universities in some cases - an admirable cause. By fostering student activism and embodying those ideals that students express are important to them, universities empower their diverse students to continue their efforts. These continued efforts lead to real change in the world. This is how society grows and progresses. As institutions of higher learning, universities have a responsibility to be this vehicle for change, put gas on it, and maintain it.

Let’s get behind these efforts by doing everything we can to enable underrepresented groups of students to both see themselves in higher education, strive for it, and succeed once they arrive on campus.

So what can institutions of higher education do? There are entire offices dedicated to engagement with minority groups in the student body. There are weeks and weeks of events dedicated to the varying forms of diversity. Demographically-targeted scholarships exist for first-generation, low-income, and students of other minority groups. Some organizations even offer to purchase books for students that can’t afford them. Isn’t that enough?

Their simple existence is not enough. The key is to make students aware of these resources, events, and opportunities by surfacing the content that relates to them.

Why Should We Care About Surfacing Relevant Content?

If you've ever sat on a college website committee, you have likely talked about single spacing versus double spacing and talked at length about the events calendar (we've been there too!) Unfortunately, this sometimes pushes other priorities down the to-do list. User experience, user interface and marketing-focused content is trumped by department events and current-student time-sensitive information. The structurally massive nature of colleges and universities means that in most cases, websites can be huge and difficult to navigate for new users. Important information is there, but may never be found by many of the students it is intended for. And what does that mean? Well, 61% of users said that if they didn’t find what they were looking for immediately, they’d quickly move on to another site. A hard-to-use website will literally hand its users over to a competitor.

Check out our article dedicated to online form fields, to learn about how you can impact your user experience and website performance with this simple change.

For a student new to higher education, applying to just one school and filling out their first FAFSA can be confusing and exhausting. Then, they have to apply to residence halls, pick a major, plan their schedule, coordinate moving into the dorms or a new apartment in a potentially new city, find and buy all their books before the first day of class, find all the classrooms for their first week of the semester, manage their time well enough to get to class, finish all their homework successfully, eat enough meals, exercise, find new friends and a new community to spend time with in this brand new environment, study for exams to pass those exams, and somehow get enough sleep to succeed so that the next day, the next semester, and the next year they can do it all over again.

*Deep breath*

Now do we see the need for informed targeting of students to show them the most useful information? Let’s catch up to our students who want to succeed. Let’s help them by doing everything we can to put the most helpful information right in front of them.

What Does That Look Like?

Let’s imagine our go-to online newspaper. Most likely, when we navigate to the homepage, we are immediately greeted by a pop-up video with a hidden ‘x’, or a pop-up ad asking us to subscribe so that we can read more than five articles a month, or a barrage of other in-your-face advertisements.

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This kind of advertising is not what speaks to the digitally-native Millennials that are currently looking for colleges or are already working on degrees. Most website visitors make a decision about whether they’re going to stay on a page or not in the first 8 seconds of landing on a page and seeing a headline. Millennials prefer content that is easy to scan and tells them information that is genuinely relevant and useful to them. Value should be easy to see right off the bat.

With that in mind, let's picture a basic college website. There may be a banner cycling through a few interesting stories on the front page - Commencement, a student’s recent publication, a faculty member’s latest breakthrough in research. These topics are all fairly general, and therefore, generally relevant to a visitor on the front page of a college’s website.

Now look below that. We see a few blocks with links leading to “Admissions”, “Scholarships Available!”, and “Campus Visits”. Also probably relevant to most visiting a college website, but still so generic. How can we make this user experience better? How can we help students picture themselves on our campus, thriving?

Well, imagine that you’re a student, prospective or enrolled, visiting that same website from a Native American reservation. What could you see? What would make you connect with this university more strongly? The banner image could be a story about a student, originally from your area, who recently won a contest or scholarship, traveled abroad, graduated with their first undergraduate or graduate degree, or was published for the first time. The blocks below the cycling banner image could be “Meet our Admissions Counselor, Taylor, in Rapid City”, “Scholarships for High School Grads in MT”, or “Fly to campus from MSO”.

Suddenly, connecting with admissions, applying for scholarships you have a tangible chance at getting, visiting the campus and seeing yourself succeed there naturally seem so much closer. The possibilities are endless.

Is This Really The Key?

How are we so sure? Well, by using tools like Google Analytics (which, by the way, is free and offers its own comprehensive training as well) we are able to track important metrics related to website effectiveness, including:

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  • Time On Site

  • Pages Visited Per Session

  • Bounce Rate

  • Conversion Rate

  • Scroll Distance

 

Showing the most relevant content to users can serve to increase the time spent on site, the number of pages visited in a session, the scroll distance (demonstrating that users were actually interested in the content and continued to look through it), and the conversion rate. It can also decrease the bounce rate, or the number of times that users land on a page and immediately navigate away from it because it wasn’t what they were looking for.

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The Takeaway

Stay up-to-date with the tools available to universities, or any website owner, to reach potential visitors better. You’re doing everyone a favor at your institution by staying in the tech loop - your marketing team, your recruitment team, and your admissions team are just a few. Help yourselves help your students. That’s truly everyone’s goal and the website personalization resources are out there. Let’s do it.