Community colleges cater to an incredibly diverse set of audiences, with wide-ranging learning styles and educational objectives. Effective websites for these institutions should ease the burden on users by promoting clarity and simplicity.
There are more than 1,400 community colleges in the United States, and students at these institutions account for almost half of the undergraduate population in this country. Community colleges, public and private, comprise an incredibly important part of the educational landscape in this country.
Their websites must rise to the challenge.
As with most colleges and universities, prospective students are frequently the most important audience for community college website. But in these cases, prospective students aren’t exclusively high school students. They may also be working adults, parents, veterans, individuals with disabilities, senior citizens, or anyone else who’s a part of the community.
There’s diversity on the institutional side as well. Classes are often offered at multiple locations, and in multiple formats. Students at some community colleges may elect to take classes only on weekends, or in the evening. Face-to-face courses in traditional classrooms may be considered along with online courses that don’t meet in person at all, or hybrid courses that combine the two.
And finally there’s a wide range of intention. While some students intend to complete a degree at a community college, others aim to transfer to a four-year institution for completion. Some want to further an existing career, some just want to explore a new hobby or experience. And students who start out with one plan may (and often do) change their minds over time.
For all the reasons that community colleges are complicated, we believe that community college websites should be simple.
With the caveat that every project comes with its own challenges and opportunities, here are a few things we’ve learned.
Don’t create barriers to interaction. Prospective students are often unable or unwilling to self-identify as one “type” or another. The website should ensure that they don’t have to. Calls to action should be clear and intuitive without creating unnecessary hoops to jump through. Content should be open ended enough to meet all the use cases, but targeted enough to encourage action.
Prioritize tone and content. For students who are uncertain of their plans or unaware of their choices, the simplicity of content is critical. Stay away from institutional or “insider” language that won’t be meaningful to prospective or current students. Be friendly, welcoming, and helpful. Content is critical, so if your internal team can’t manage the creation of at least high-level content, set aside some of your budget to get help.
Articulate the institution’s strengths. Whether students are considering a community college as one option among many or as the only possible choice, they want to feel good about their school and understand what it has to offer. The website should underscore the quality of the institution’s offerings: highly-qualified faculty, strategic partnerships, residential experiences, or whatever else you bring to the table.
Invest time in structure and navigation. A single community college may offer concentrations, certificates, degrees, programs, professional partnerships and more. Even for people who work at the college, it’s a complicated puzzle. Putting all these pieces together on a website isn’t simple, but it should feel simple to the user. Creating a sense of ease and clarity requires careful strategy. Take the time to think through your structure and navigation before you commit to design and implementation.
Don’t overcomplicate design. We find that clients in this space will often benefit from a visual interface that feels accessible and friendly, rather than one that is innovative to the point of unfamiliarity to users. Clean and uncluttered elements should be focused on serving the needs of the content strategy without cramming too much into any one component.
Apply external priorities to internal experiences. For community college students, retention isn’t guaranteed. You have to work to keep every student engaged and committed. Most institutions have some kind of intranet or gated experience for current students. All of the lessons from the external website (simplicity, clarity, ease of use) should be applied to the internal experiences as well.
At the end of the day, a community college isn’t a completely different animal than any other college or university. It may be more complex, but the same rules apply:
Understand audiences and put their needs first.
Simplify navigation and structure.
Invest in clear, accessible content.
The prominence of community colleges among higher education institutions is changing today, and will continue to do. Effective websites will help ensure that forward-looking colleges can take advantage of their place in this evolving landscape.