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Five Headwinds Facing Higher Education and How to Respond

Old wooden padlocked front doors

Higher education is amid never-before-seen industry disruption. Many of the contributing factors are external. But sound strategies exist to help you mitigate the impact or side-step it altogether.

The five factors impacting your institution right now

Man stands on a large college graduation cap overlooking shark-infested waters

Even if your college or university hasn’t been hit by all five disruptors, most likely three of the five have had a significant impact on your school’s enrollment, recruitment efforts, and ultimately, revenue. In many ways, colleges and universities are facing an undefined future.

The five factors our research reveals:

  1. Shrinking pool of traditional prospects - The number of college-bound 18-year-olds is in decline in many parts of the country and may not rebound anytime soon.
  2. Right-sizing, mergers, and closings - Vulnerability is rising, especially for traditional liberal arts and small- to mid-size schools.
  3. Significant changes in financial aid - Funding for financial aid is decreasing, while loan types are diminishing. New borrowing caps are also emerging.
  4. Change in public perception - Justified or not, concerns over the ROI of a college degree vs. cost of attending are real.
  5. Accelerating operating costs - New buildings and what some have described as “country-club-like” amenities have increased capital and operating costs.

Despite these factors your school has a differentiating asset you can leverage.

Your website is one of the strongest marketing tools you have

person stands in a dark room in front of a large key hole showing light and bright colors on the other side

It is your school’s virtual front door. If you can’t say this with confidence about your site, you have some work to do. Your entire website—not just the homepage—is your differentiator. This digital “front door” to your school is the one through which everyone enters – every prospect, every student, stakeholder, alumni, benefactor, and potential partner.

By acknowledging how vital it is, you’ve now placed an incredible amount of expectation on your website. How does it stack up?

Our depth of experience with higher education digital strategy points to the following key indicators of unsuccessful and successful websites:

Struggling institutions’ websites

  • Fail to engage all their audiences - Your website needs deliver a meaningful experience to students, prospects, stakeholders, alumni, and others by engaging them in a way that satisfies why the user came to your website in the first place.
  • Are obsolete and very outdated - You can no longer afford to wait 3-5 years to upgrade your website. Back in the day, it would have been unthinkable to treat your school’s printed viewbook or catalog that way. Your website is no exception.
  • Lack proper investment - Budgeting for regular website improvements is essential, as well as having the staff needed to govern updates. Failure to do so impacts your brand, enrollments, and revenue.

Successful institutions’ websites

  • Deliver an experience that engages and promotes desired action - User experience (UX) is held high on the importance list. This ensures audience-specific content that drives engagement, enrollment, and revenue.
  • Continuously improve for maximum engagement - Content and functionality is upgraded regularly to include major revisions, changing technology, and user trends.
  • Budget for digital tools that drive financial success - Annual investments in technology and expert staff keep your website and other interactive assets performing optimally and in line with strategic goals.

Consider the old saying, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” Yet, when it comes to first impressions of a website that is exactly what we all do. We encounter so many well-developed websites every day, that poor ones are painfully obvious. When a user lands on your site, the clock begins ticking and you have mere seconds to engage and keep that visitor.

But what if your website could…

  • Attract not just prospects but the right prospects?
  • Engage all audiences undergrads, grads, non-traditional students, and alumni?
  • Keep in step with organizational strategies and changing user experience needs?

All of these things are achievable, and most importantly, sustainable. However, it takes diligence, team work, and a governance plan. But with sound information on digital best practices you’re headed in the right direction. We’ve provided resources to help you get there.

Getting your website where it needs to be

a series of arrows with divergent paths are redirected into a singular path

We’ve compiled the following additional resources to help you plan, decide, and execute properly on your way to a better website. Share these resources with colleagues and leadership to help inform them and bring everyone onto the same page.

Getting Buy-In to Change

Getting Leadership Buy-In on Your Needed Website Upgrades

You Are Not Your Target Audience (eduWeb presentation)


Accessibility—It Can’t Be Stressed Enough

Web Accessibility Toolkit

Digital Accessibility Services

Making User Experience (UX) Part of Your Brand


Incremental Continuous Improvement is Key

An Agile Approach to Keeping Your Website Relevant

The Importance of Documentation in Website Projects—A Developer’s Perspective

Successful Content Strategy Collaboration

Building a Powerful Website Call to Action (CTA)

4 Things to Think About Before You Put Videos on Your Website

Making Web Content More Visual


Anatomy of a Brand Series

What Your Site Says About Your Brand

Brand Differentiation and Why it’s Critical

Setting Your Brand Apart


Success Strategies, and Then Some

Opening the Virtual Front Door to Your Campus—Effective Web Strategy in Higher Education

Amping Up Your College Admissions with Web Technology

Writing Content: Storytelling and SEO

Web Strategy for Non-Traditional Students

Digital Strategies for Recruiting Generation Z


Your Digital Success Map

a winding road illustrates the journey to a better website with map points 1 through 7 along the way

There’s a better website for your school down the road ahead. Whether you work solely with your in-house team or partner with an outside firm, map out your workflow across the entire project. Between SAI Digital’s deep research and assessment, agile project management, information architecture, wireframing, UX design, testing, and ongoing improvements throughout our relationship, what might appear as moving to a destination – your new website – is actually the start of a longer, more successful continuous journey. 

  1. Identify Gaps - Uncover areas for improvement such as poor user experience (UX), clunky navigation, lacking level of appeal to all audiences, ineffective pages with high bounce rates, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) opportunities, and others. 
  2. Acknowledge Change is Needed - Build a case for change supported with gap analysis data. This becomes a precursor to a defined plan.
  3. Commit to Change - Build consensus with stakeholders by helping them understand the internal and external purpose of the website and how improvements will help achieve stated goals.
  4. Develop a Website Value Assessment - Identify and prioritize a superset of website enhancements and define intended outcomes. Conduct research necessary to inform the approach. This helps define the web enhancement workflow.
  5. Conduct Pre-launch - Test website refinements and enhancements and employ additional stakeholder user surveys to gauge performance and areas to possibly tweak.
  6. Launch the Site - Based on workflow and timeline, go live with a systematic or full-site roll out that reflects pre-launch indications.
  7. Improve Continuously - Conduct ongoing evaluations that inform regular incremental enhancements. Analyze site stats and make needed adjustments that are mindful of the initial performance gaps. Stay tech-current, and form a core group of colleagues to serve as stewards of the website improvement process.

As colleges and universities navigate through, perhaps, their most challenging modern period, now is not the time to put one's website on auto-pilot. Enhancing your school's digital marketing ecosystem and maintaining a healthy website is the kind of agility required for future success.

I'm interested in your thoughts about this article and in finding out what your web governance strategy entails. Want to talk website or digital marketing strategy? Email me at, or contact SAI Digital about a strategic partnership.

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