Technical and community colleges are going through a tough period.
College enrollments are declining, and competition is increasing. For-profits, MOOCs and now even universities are all trying to attract the learners that have traditionally looked to community colleges for their postsecondary education.
In their article on The EvoLLLution, Matthew Meyer, Associate Vice President for STEM Innovation and Strategic Planning and Anne Bacon, Director of Strategic Planning and Policy at the North Carolina Community College System, discussed the competitive environment that community colleges find themselves in.
“Scanning the higher education marketplace of today, one will notice a conglomeration of institutions vying for a decreasing number of potential college applicants. Community colleges in particular are feeling the stress of competition as enrollment flattens or decreases across the country while private and online education moves into the training and sub-baccalaureate space,” they wrote.
Competition is now a reality!
What’s more, student demographics have changed. An increasing number of adult students are returning to education. These learners, with full-time jobs and family commitments, are looking to develop new skills that can get them higher paying jobs. Younger students, on the other hand, are seeking to build a work-ready skillset. Despite their age differences, they have a few common characteristics; they both expect a high level of customer service and are extremely seasoned online shoppers.
So why not look to the processes your learners are already comfortable with to figure out how to serve them better?
How Online Shopping Is Shaping the Way Students Engage with Colleges
Today, students prefer to shop for everything online—from household products to airline tickets to groceries. Learners are sophisticated shoppers and expect their education provider to offer the same experience that they get from everyday online shopping.
While these students want to be treated as students in the classroom, they expect a great customer experience in every other interaction with the college. That means they expect every process—from enrollment and registration, to course add/drop, to requests for help—to be designed around their needs.
According to Joseph Moreau, Vice Chancellor of Technology at the Foothill-De Anza Community College District, it’s critical to design a higher education experience based around the actual needs and desires of today’s students.
“Students are also adopting a more consumer-oriented attitude toward their college or university. They see themselves as consumers of learning and support services and demand increased value for their money. They take this approach with faculty and support staff. The increasing cost of higher education has certainly amplified students’ quest for the value they believe they are due,” he wrote in his article on The EvoLLLution.
Students apply the same principles to their postsecondary decision-making as they to do any other purchase. They search for programs and institutions online, visit the website and expect to have immediate access to information that helps them make a decision. They even use internet search engines and social media to look for reviews and star ratings to supplement the information they get from college websites. And once they have made their choice, they want to enroll at their convenience.
If your college isn’t offering an intuitive and straightforward customer experience, you’re not meeting the expectations of your learners.
It All Starts With the Website
Your students’ online shopping experience is largely driven by your college website. As a first touch point for your prospects, it acts as a crucial medium for you to catch their eyes and increase their engagement. Hence it is imperative that you pay particular attention to your website and its design.
Here are a few online shopping best practices that you can apply to your college website and serve your students better, influence their program choices and stand out from the competition.1. Search Engine Optimization
Your website needs to be search engine optimized. What that means is your website needs to stand out from the crowd and come up on top in internet searches. Students look for program information online and use it to narrow down on a few choices. You need to make sure that your website is designed to rank well in their searches by ensuring you can easily optimize for particular searches and keywords central to your programming. Additionally, if you have the capacity to publish star ratings and reviews, you’ll stand out even more!2. Clean Layout
When students are browsing for information, they expect a clean and consistent visual layout across the program or course pages. Your website should present them with all information they need to select a program. This could include course details, start and end dates and even information on employment outcomes and the courses needed to achieve an educational goal. If the website has all this information, you are likely to earn their trust and confidence as they make their choice.3. Intuitive and Customer-Driven
Providing students with useful information is only one part of taking them through the enrollment journey. The other part is making your website intuitive so that students can start engaging with your college. Students expect to be able to manage most bureaucratic tasks simply and easily through your college website. They don’t want to make time to come to the college to fill applications, make payments, order transcripts, or get payment receipts. By engaging students online, you can create an exceptional experience that encourages them to keep returning.
The higher education landscape has evolved so much over the last few years, that today, community colleges need to be equipped to serve the needs of modern learners and use it as a strength to fend off competition.