Ban Catalog Copy from College Web Pages!

Have you ever wondered why so many college web pages are so  boring? Many college websites contain pages that largely reproduce their catalog copy. And catalog copy—understandably, given its purpose—is dreadfully boring. I know. I used to fall asleep editing my college’s catalog.

What Needs to Change

With the addition of video, slide shows, and drop-down or sliding menus, college websites have, to be sure, picked up their game. Sites are more entertaining and easier to navigate. For most, it is fairly easy for visitors to get to pages containing the information that interests them. But when they land there, what do they encounter?

All too often, college web pages reproduce catalog copy directly or at least mimic the catalog’s style. This means one thing: the content on such pages likely will go unread. No matter the subject’s importance, this is ineffective writing for the web. Visitors too readily spot and click away from such writing. A quick glance at many college websites reveals paragraph after paragraph of turgid prose focusing on the institution or its prestigious faculty. A visitor’s potential questions or problems remain ignored.

Some of the worst examples occur on pages devoted to financial aid. Many such pages that reproduce the FAFSA regulations, ignoring the online application that is available. Some colleges merely list their costs and indicate the various types of aid available. This sort of treatment of such a complicated issue for most prospective students is intimidating, to say the least. A better way would be to directly address the concerns that keep prospective students and their families awake at night and actively show them some possible solutions.

Some institutions are beginning to do just that. St. Edward’s University provides a very simple online calculator that gives students an immediate estimate of the amount of aid for which they might qualify along with an estimate of their remaining responsibility. Bradley University offers an “early estimator” that not only calculates merit aid from the University, but also simulates FAFSA’s contribution. Finally, Le Moyne College offers several aid calculators along with a brief, plain-language explanation of their financial aid program. All three institutions address financial aid concerns directly and make it easy for visitors to have their questions answered.

Unfortunately, academic web pages generally lag behind admissions pages. Of course, academic regulations must be stated clearly and precisely, since such statements amount to an implied contract between students and an institution. This is why links to a college’s catalog should be provided for those who need to go there. Nevertheless, academic pages, too, should effectively present a college’s advantages and benefits to students. Presuming that prospective students can infer benefits to themselves merely from a catalog-like description of an academic program is foolish.

Once again, communication will fail when visitors encounter blocks of long, complicated sentences that address none of their questions. When an explanation of an academic program merely describes a program’s requirements, brags about the faculty’s prestige, but fails to address students’ concerns, visitors will click away. Wordy accounts of why a program is prestigious will not overcome web-constrained attention spans.

Connecticut College, which offers information in small, attractively arranged bites for each department, provides a good example of what should be done. Their brief, student-focused explanations contain or are accompanied by links that make navigating to additional information easy. Catalog pages are available, but only if one really needs them. In addition, some for-profit institutions, such as the University of Phoenix and DeVry University, with their focus on recruiting students by using up-to-date online marketing techniques, exemplify the sort of web-savvy approach that should characterize presentation of academic programs. Their pages scan easily and provide information in a format designed to address student concerns and problems.

College administrators should take a look not only at their admissions and financial aid web pages, but also at their descriptions of academic programs to see whether they utilize effective techniques for communicating online. More to the point, administrators should ask web-experienced writers on their staff or outside consultants* to edit all their web pages. These days, every page on a college’s website is a marketing opportunity that should reflect a college’s advantages and communicate them effectively to prospective students.

* Coincidentally(!), I offer such services.

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