The Internet has emerged as one of the academy’s best and most important tools for engaging and recruiting students. Colleges and universities have invested millions of dollars and person-hours into making their websites appealing and helpful for potential and current students. In the past decade these sites have provided increased access accurate and timely information students and their parents need to get to and through that particular college. States, represented by both public and private entities, have also used the web to develop ‘portals’ designed to be one-stop shops to promote college access in a more general way, often aligning the work with the states’ goals for educational attainment and access. Student information portals exist in almost every state, sometimes with multiple portals in single state and have grown to serve a wide variety of purposes. The dimensions of the portals, who they serve and how successfully and cost-effective these efforts are, is not well known.
Following the completion of two national studies by the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) and the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), the former focusing on student information portals generally and the latter specifically on transfer/articulation portals, we convened a group of some 85 people representing thirty states, agencies and vendors in Indianapolis, April 28-29, 2011, to discuss the findings of the two studies and the role of portals in increasing student success.
The SREB study found that while some key content items are prevalent in the majority of portals, there are a number of other variables that these portals showcase. Researchers found 108 sites that fit the definition for a portal for the study: multiple institutions, focus on college access, and provision of at least one service beyond general information on going to college. Portals were found in all but three states, with 20 states having more than one statewide portal. A total of 119 discrete variables or data/informational elements were discovered in the analysis of portals.
The WICHE study focused on transfer and articulation portals and identified 37 sites that met the criteria of providing credit transfer information specific to at least three public in-state institutions and information, services and tools that provide the user with more than just general transfer information. Once again, these portals contain a wide variety of tools and resources—some offer online admissions applications, personal accounts and interactive tools to chart course equivalencies and articulation agreements, while others included links to in-state and out-of-state colleges and universities.
These studies provided a framework for the conversation, with discussion about the topics and findings ranging well beyond these web-based tools. What we learned can generally be grouped into six key categories: Content, Metrics, Markets, Practices, Funding, Integration and Accountability.
- Content: There is no shortage of content student information portals can include—from admission applications and financial aid information and links to colleges and virtual tours to, career assessments, online learning options and countless other examples. Existing portals do not suffer from bare pages! Indeed an argument can be, and was, made, that so much content may actually be harmful to meeting user needs, who can be overwhelmed by the amount of information. Not only does too much content water down keyword effect in search engines, which most students use to find a portal, but it offers the student who may not have a goal in mind in visiting the page with an overwhelming and sometimes off-putting experience. Students quickly lose patience with information that is not well-organized, valuable, available within a few mouse clicks or directs them in a useful way. The result is that most will leave the site rather than comb through all of the information. Sites need to be better designed, made easier to navigate, more ‘user friendly’ and more responsive to user interests.
- Metrics: There was little disagreement among the participants in the convening that across all varieties of portal, the lack of real data to measure the impact and usefulness of the portals was a major issue. Clearly more needs to be done to find the appropriate set of metrics to measure the efficacy of these sites and to help build the case among policymakers for the value of investments that are being made in portals. The standard metrics: website hits, time on site, and account sign-ups (when appropriate) just don’t provide the level of knowledge that decision-makers need to motivate and inform improvements. One participant noted “Portals need to focus on success. Access isn’t enough.” The truth is, the current metrics don’t even measure access, as they don’t track students who use the portal to make their decisions through their college-going efforts. Other participants noted that the metrics used to message the impact of the portals need to line up with the purpose of the portals: for example, portals that provide transfer and articulation services need to track whether students are successfully transferring. One caution ran through the event–the tendency to attribute more impact of the portals than they actually deliver (or can demonstrate). Portals don’t get students into college—they provide prospective students with information and tools necessary to help them get into college. And so, the question still remains about how best to measure effectiveness of portals when so much responsibility lies in the students’ hands (and policymakers at all levels to create a manageable system) to actually use the tools the portal presents. Nonetheless, while the group didn’t land on specific metrics that can and should be used to measure success, there was call for a focused conversation to guide portal managers through this issue.
- Markets: Many portals, particularly those that have been active for years, were created to guide the “traditional” college student to college—they serve and feature the 18-year old traditional high school graduate who goes immediately to college after high school. We know for a fact that “traditional” is a misnomer, and these students are actually in the minority of today’s college population. Colleges, especially community colleges and 4-year regional institutions, continue to serve more first-generation, low-income, minority and adult students than ever. Yet many student information web portals haven’t changed their tactics to serve the 21st century student. One participant suggested that the portals need to have a ‘cradle to grey’ orientation and provide a lifelong learning toolkit for students of whatever age. This focus on markets took a couple different perspectives. First, 21st century students are looking for different things from college—they want information on how programs line up to job opportunities, how they might get through in an accelerated timeframe, and what they’re going to be able to do with their degree when they finish, among others. Too often, portals are not focused on these variables and certainly don’t provide the access to career information that these students want. Second, some portals don’t pay attention to students as 21st century consumers. Online interactions have grown to a point where they are ubiquitous and there is little patience with a portal format that doesn’t provide a point of interaction, has a clumsy overall experience, or doesn’t include a method of providing feedback. One participant noted that his bank continually updates its site to ensure that transactions are all in one place, quicker and easier, and then asks for his feedback. The vast majority of portals just don’t provide the same level of service to the student as a consumer. Many portals also don’t market themselves through appropriate routes. For instance, participants from one state indicated that students overwhelmingly heard about the portal through social networking from school counselors—they adjusted their strategy to focus on marketing to students in that way instead and decided to forgo buying billboards. Finally, few portals have managed to orient themselves toward the markets they’re serving. One participant said, “We need to break away from the ‘you need what we’re selling’ mentality.” There seemed to be a consensus within the group that, in fact, portals need to figure out what the students are “buying” and provide it. One interesting conversation focused on the use of portals by institutions to keep transfer information current—these portals provide an excellent resource to registrars and counselors. While it’s good that institutions are using the systems and ensuring that the information is up-to-date, participants noted that students need this information just as much as the institutions, and often, they are not necessarily student-centered.
- Practices: David Longanecker, President of WICHE, opened a panel discussion with a question about cars. He asked, “Do you drive a Ford, a Honda, a Toyota?” Then he asked how many people would switch to another brand of car if given the chance. When few people indicated they would change, he said, “We all think we have the right product.” The analogy was referred to often during the convening to make the point that we all tend to believe we have it right, even in the portal ‘business,’ judging by the fact that there are currently 108 active portals sites and multiple sites in several states essentially competing for the same students.Yet, in this time of fiscal constraint, there is growing concern about the ability to sustain all of these sites, and one must question the efficacy of developing and maintaining similar and quite possibly overlapping portals which may or may not be effectively meeting student needs. There was strong consensus among participants that promising practices within this field need to be identified, promoted, and adopted.. With proliferation of sites, and legislative mandates that require portals but provide little guidance, there is a real need in this area for advice and best practices, both to ensure new sites are valuable and to drive improvement in existing portals.
- Funding: The early forms of state portals were typically developed and supported by state guarantor agencies as a means to drive more students to financial assistance. The second wave of portals are typically supported by state appropriation or by federal or state grants. No sites in the studies required students to pay for services or advertised. Given the ongoing fiscal crises in the states and the uncertainty of federal funding sources like the federal College Access Challenge Grant (CACG), the onus is on portal providers to find other funding sources. More to the point, portal managers need to develop sustainable business models that don’t rely on one-time funding sources, like grants, and uncertain public funding. While the topic was intimated a few times, the concept of advertising revenue itself did not come up until the end of the second day of the conference. There was no firm consensus about the idea from the group, but there was overall acceptance that more creative funding models will definitely be necessary.
- Integration: Julie Bell from the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), pointed out that the top three interests of state legislators concerning higher education are remediation costs, reducing time-to-degree and improving transfer/articulation. These three areas are all relevant to the portal discussion and can be valuable in garnering additional support for portals. However, legislators are also sensitive to waste and duplication and need more clear evidence of the value and importance of portals. To ensure sustainability, some states may need to look at consolidating and integrating their multiple portals, and make sure that value to students is maximized in the integration. Further, there are very few portals that seek to ‘umbrella’ and link postsecondary education to workforce and economic development needs, jobs, elementary and secondary education or other state interests. Greater focus on how to integrate this information and services in portals is essential.
- Accountability: The conversations about metrics and sustainable business plans were driven by the need for greater accountability. The group took two perspectives on accountability. First was intrinsic—there needs to be evidence of value-adds from the investment in portals to continue to survive in the current environment. Portal managers indicated a great desire to make their sites as valuable as possible to their intended audiences. Second was extrinsic–portal managers know that they will increasingly be called upon to justify the existence of the portals, and that they will need to make the case to a wide variety of audiences. According to one participant, the vague legislation that mandated a portal created a situation where the portal manager is not accountable to anyone. Without clear goals and objectives, it is very difficult to measure value. Ultimately, the question must be how portals are helping students get to and through college—increasingly, this will be the measure by which portals are judged.
Overwhelmingly, participants envision the portal of the future as a consumer-driven, smart (an Amazon-like customer relationship model), integrated, relevant and useable tool for students of all types and ages. They imagine more points of interface and intervention, and tools that not only enable students to make better decisions, but that meet students where they are in the decision-making process. They imagine sites that are well-maintained and up to date with the latest information and tools. They imagine sites that are optimized in search engines, ensuring that students can easily and quickly find them. They imagine nimble systems that respond quickly to the way people learn and the pace at which the world changes.
Half-jokingly, Holly Zanville from the Lumina staff said she imagined putting together a time capsule describing what portals looked like in 2011—and what the group thought portals should look like in 2015—might be an interesting exercise. She hoped we would all look back in 2015 and say we have come such a long way and have made so many improvements. The consensus was that this was really a good idea: that we needed to continue to make portals more central to supporting the goals of the Foundation and the nation in educational attainment.
It was clear from this convening that there is a real opportunity for make portals more relevant and useful to students, the true consumer of the portal, and that the energy to make those improvements is not in short supply. Yet, it will take strong advocacy and ever-increasing accountability to ensure that portals are sustained in the public sector.