We all know it's true. The academic program pages are (or should be) the Super Stars of any community college website. They are your primary vehicle for attracting and converting prospective students into your various programs. These pages are so vital to the enrollment pipeline, that knowing what content to put on them and how to optimize the pages for conversions is absolutely critical. We reached out to community college communication professionals all over the country to ask a few simple questions.
What is the purpose of your program pages? What content is a must-have on your program pages? Is there content you do not have that you wish you did?
We asked everyone what the purpose is for their program pages and we received a wide variety of feedback. Collectively, I feel really good about the following definition:
Program pages should have a driven purpose to sell the potential occupations of prospective students and be written from a marketing perspective, rather than an instructional viewpoint. They should also serve as a hub of information for current students and meet the content needs of the academic department.
That is certainly a tall order for a program's primary landing page. How does your community college's program pages stack up to this definition? Not so good? Don't worry, there is no reason to panic. We have seen a lot of program pages and very few come close to maximizing their potential. This blog post is full of fresh ideas for must-have content and is also full of links to examples (good, bad and indifferent).
I gave a breakout session at the PRIMA NC Conference recently and have been beating myself up ever since for not addressing this very important point. There are two approaches to Program Pages. There is the Program Approach and there is the Pathways Approach. Before you go through this list of must-have content, I think it is important to understand the difference between the two approaches.
The Program Approach provides high-level content based on the overall topic of the program. Schools that take this approach will typically have an alphabetical listing of all of their program pages. The prospective student that is interested in Nursing would simply click on Nursing. From the Nursing page, they would be given very broad information about the program offerings and be given their choices of credentials (degrees, certificates, diplomas) associated with the program. The Program Approach is easier to implement because it requires fewer pages and provides information about the program in a more compact manner. There is a major drawback when it comes to providing specific content though. The career outlooks, the cost of the program and time to completion for a student planning to be a Registered Nurse (RN) is very different than for a student planning to become a Nurse Aid. Because the Program Approach is so broad in its scope, you have to talk about Nursing in broad generalities. You might also run the risk of overselling the career outlook of the Program in general because what you write may not necessarily apply to the lower-level credential.
The Pathways Approach to very specific to the credential being earned. These credential-based pages are typically organized into pathways which relate to similar careers and industries. The prospective student that is interested in Nursing would go to the Health Professions pathway. From this page, they would find Nursing and choose either Associate of Applied Science or Nurse Aid Training Program. The beauty of this approach is it allows you to tailor your content to the specific student experience and career outcomes that relate to that particular credential. This approach allows you to answer, with specificity, how long it takes to complete the credential, how much will it cost to attain the credential, what job titles can you expect to qualify for, what is the career outlook, and so much more. Creating content pages for every credential might seem like a lot more work, but it is so much easier to develop content when you are talking about specifics and not summarizing in generalities.
We had over 10 pages worth of feedback from our contributors and it took us a long time to comb through and start putting the pieces together. In the end, we ended up with 11 types of "must have" content for your academic program pages. So without further adieu...
Just about every respondent mentioned the importance of having a good visual to selling the potential career or student experience of the program. Images should be compelling. They should come across as authentic and relevant to the program. They could show photos of students and faculty interacting with each other or show occupation-based photography. Your use of images should be consistent across all program pages. Make sure they are of equal size and placement. If you opt for full width images you typically have to reduce height. This can make it difficult for you to find ultra-wide shots that crop "just right". If you go full-width and make no attempts to reduce image height, you can cause the user to have to scroll far before they get to textual content. Using smaller images that are 1/3, 1/2 or 2/3s the size of the page can allow you to utilize left column navigation for easier browsing. Be sure to size down images for their finished use and utilize image compression to reduce file size. Google tracks page speed and factors this in how it ranks your pages.
You need to include a brief description of the program that includes the job outlook and traits of successful people in the program. This should be written in an engaging, second person perspective. The best way to think about it is an elevator pitch. You are in an elevator with a prospective student and you only have 60 seconds to grab their attention and sell them on your program. What you write on the website must have enough of an effect that they want to engage with the rest of the web page.
Here is a lifeless example of a program description. The guilty shall remain nameless:
National Standards, Local Expertise
Located at the Anonymous Campus, our Nursing program is approved by the State Board of Nursing and accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing, Inc. (ACEN). In our program, you will learn the knowledge and skills required for an entry-level nursing job, and qualify to take the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses, which is a requirement for practice. Our program is designed to prepare the student to be licensed as a registered nurse (RN). RNs deliver nursing care in a variety of healthcare settings.
A shining example are the well-worded program pages from Casper College:
Are you interested in working in a healthcare environment? Does working with people invigorate you? Do you want a career that is exciting, challenging and in high demand? Are you looking for a career that is well-paying?
If these fit your career goals, you may want to consider a career as a Registered Nurse (RN).
Promote the occupations that are related to the program. Prospective students want to know that they are going to get a return on their investment and/or work in a satisfying career. There is a wide-variety of job market data which you could include. You can talk about specific salary ranges and provide an overall industry outlook. You could use Indeed's widget tool to filter and display related job postings. Our favorite websites had a listing of job titles with each one being its own content page full of detailed information on that career. Gainful employment information may be a requirement for some programs. You may also need to list completions (# and %), placement in field (# and %) and licensure (# and %).
When I ask clients about barriers prospective students face when deciding on college, cost is always at the top of the list. You should be incredibly detailed in providing program costs by semester, including fees, program specific costs and books. It's not fair to surprise your students with unexpected costs that might hinder their ability to complete the program. That does a disservice to the student and to your completion rates. This is also your opportunity to highlight cost savings vs alternatives like a 4 year institution
Cost doesn't always have to be about money. It is also about time. That's why you should address how long it can take to complete the program. Closely related to time are "delivery options". Is the program available at certain campuses? Is it completely online? Is it hybrid online and on campus
The way you display your curriculum for your program depends heavily on if you took the Pathways Approach or the Program Approach. Program Options could include information like Program Type (certificate, diploma, degree) and the format of the classes (day, evening, online, hybrid).
The actual curriculum information is typically a link to a subpage. Many colleges still rely too heavily on PDF documents to display course catalog information. We would rather see curriculum as a dynamically-driven database that allows you to drill down by Program Page > Degree Page > Course Page. Course Information should include Outline, Course Sequencing, Credit Hours and Prerequisites. Schools that use Acalog, Colleague by Ellucian or Banner by Ellucian should be able to setup an automated CSV export of courses that can be imported into the website as a scheduled task. This makes it much easier to maintain curriculum information on your website.
You are probably way ahead of the game if you are discussing transfer opportunities that are specific to a particular program. This section is also a great opportunity to showcase the cost savings comparison for participating in a transfer program.
Truly advanced program pages will provide a Career Pathway Roadmap. This is a graphic display of the path from first certificate of completion to the two-year or four-year degree. The roadmaps can also include employment information.
When Allison Treloar came from the private sector to work at Tidewater Community College, she noticed that HigherEd has a tendency to bury the most important information on their websites. She knew TCC needed to approach their new website as if they were a popular e-commerce site like Amazon. Their focus was on selling programs up front and providing quick links on program pages to "related programs". Since they already implemented a Pathways Approach to organizing their programs, it was easy for them to group similar program offerings. Don't treat the program page as a final destination. Treat it as part of their journey as the prospective student finds the program that is perfect for them.
Having program faculty and advisors included on the program page is important for both recruitment and student success. This would preferably include photos and contact information like name, email and phone. This could also link to faculty individual pages if applicable. When I interviewed Dale Stowell for the College Marketing Podcast he mentioned how he developed a relationship with his future instructors before he ever became a student at Linn-Benton Community College (Listen at the 31 minute mark). Providing this information will help those prospective students that are looking for the right fit.
No program page would be complete without a call-to-action. Some CTAs are more obvious than others. Here is a list that our contributors helped us compile:
There is no better way to make your program pages relatable than having testimonials that make prospective students stop and say, "he or she is just like me and look what they did". Your testimonials could feature students, impressive faculty and successful alumni. Success Stories could be as simple as short written testimonials and as complex as video spotlights. Start assessing which programs have success stories, and which do not, and start the process of filling the gaps.
Content marketing should be a strategic part of your recruiting efforts through news, events and blog posts. You can post events specific to the program, like information sessions. You can post announcements about student and faculty achievements. You can curate content on community events related to this field of study (health fairs at the local hospital, related events at the Chamber of Commerce). You can post news or announcements from the program faculty and integrate blog articles written by faculty, current students and alumni.
My final question to our contributors was how they go about sourcing information for their program pages. Here is what they said:
We have seen a lot of really good program pages during our research on this topic, and have included some stellar examples in this post. But we still have not come across the "perfect" program page. There is always room for improvement. I hope this information will help you make steps every single year to improve them.
David Hardin, Director of Creative Services, Cape Fear Community College (Wilmington, NC)
Justin Floyd, Web Designer / Developer, Cape Fear Community College (Wilmington, NC)
Melissa Serrato, Marketing & Outreach Assistant, Fullerton College (Fullerton, CA)
Allison Treloar, Web Communications Manager, Tidewater Community College (Norfolk, VA)
Michelle Haywood, Public Information, Montgomery Community College (Troy, NC)
London Schmidt, Director, Public Relations and Marketing, Brunswick Community College (Leland, NC)
Dale Stowell, Institutional Advancement, Linn-Benton Community College (Albany, OR)
Kathleen Cabral, Marketing Director, Leeward Community College (Pearl City, HI)
Stephanie Michael-Pickett, Director of Marketing and Public Relations, Gaston College (Dallas, NC)
Christy Keirn, Director of Communications and Institutional Advancement, Arkansas State University-Mountain Home (Mountain Home, AR)
Mary Jordan, Coordinator of Marketing and Public Relations, Mesa Community College (Mesa, AZ)
Barbara Anne Spears, Dean of Instruction, Central Alabama Community College (Alexander City, AL)
Harvey W. Powers, Assistant Webmaster, Southside Virginia Community College (Albert, VA)
Christopher Lorenzen, Director of Public Relations, Casper College (Casper, WY)
Ashley Chadwick, Web Designer, Casper College (Casper, WY)
Stephanie Pettis, Director, Marketing and Public Relations, Northwest Florida State College (Niceville, FL)
Jonathan Medford is founding partner of Inspire. He lives in Whiteville, NC where he is president of the Whiteville Rotary Club and board member of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce & Tourism. Marketing is not just a career for Jonathan, it's a passion. When he has time away from developing results-driven marketing campaigns, he enjoys spending time with his family, and pickin' the guitar.