College-bound students flock to universities’ mobile websites

Only one in 10 campuses have a mobile website.

A surge in the percentage of recent high school graduates who use smart phones to research colleges and universities could turn campus web development on its head.

Colleges’ mobile sites, once considered experimental by campus leaders, could take priority over traditional websites, and soon.

Fifty-two percent of prospective college students said they had viewed a school’s website on a mobile device in 2011—more than double the percentage from 2010. And 48 percent of those students said the mobile site experience bettered their view of the campus, according to a survey conducted by higher-education consulting company Noel-Levitz and the National Research Center for College & University Admissions.

Two percent of student respondents said their mobile site perusing hurt their perception of the college or university.

Only 4 percent of students who used a mobile device to view a college’s site used a tablet. More than nine in 10 students used a smart phone, meaning schools should “optimize” their mobile-specific sites for the phones’ small screens, according to the survey, “The Mobile Browsing Behaviors of College-Bound High School Students.”

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The mainstreaming of mobile sites among prospective college students and the relative cost-effectiveness of building websites designed specifically for iPhones, Androids, and BlackBerrys could put the development of traditional sites—accessed by laptops and desktops—on higher education’s back burner, wrote Doug Gapinski, a technology blogger.

In fact, more Americans will access the internet through a smart phone or tablet than via desktop computer by 2015, according to a September report from International Data Corporation (IDC).

“We will soon be living in an age where more people are accessing the internet via mobile than on desktop computers,” Gapinski wrote. “Now is the time to deploy a first-generation mobile solution, start measuring how people are using it, and iterate the site effectively over time.”

Perhaps most alarming for schools competing for incoming students: According to West Virginia University (WVU) programmer Dave Olsen, nine in 10 colleges don’t have a mobile website.

Forty-seven percent of students polled said they would return to a college’s mobile website, with the same percentage saying they might come back to the site. Six percent said they would not.

The recent mobile-web survey showed that colleges shouldn’t rush to develop their own mobile apps for iPhones and Androids. Seven in 10 respondents said they were “happy” to research the school’s offerings through a mobile site rather than finding and downloading the college’s app.

“While such applications could allow you to customize and optimize the experience even further, they also would require development and testing that are probably not worth the extra effort,” the report said. “Stick with creating a terrific mobile version of your site instead.”

The potential shift in web development tactics, Gapinski wrote, could be welcome news for campus IT officials scraping by on stagnant operating budgets and looking for new, cheap ways to get a technological advantage on peer schools.

“It costs a fraction of a full site relaunch to do a mobile site, usually because the information provided is more transactional and self-contained in a mobile environment than it is in a sprawling college or university site,” he wrote. “If you’re thinking about how to prioritize web or marketing budgets, consider that mobile is both future-friendly and comparatively affordable.”

Noel-Levitz researchers suggested that colleges and universities should sync their traditional and mobile sites so that when one is updated, the other is, too. But updates should be double-checked on mobile versions, because embedded media players, for example, often won’t display on mobile sites.

The mobile web’s growing relevance was plain to see in statistics compiled by WVU’s IT department. During the fall 2009 semester, when WVU’s site was launched, there was an average of 1,500 daily page views.

By fall 2010, the daily page views hovered around 4,200. The mobile site was viewed more than 4,500 times every day during the spring 2011 semester. The university’s mobile site recorded 7,000 page views on the first day of that spring semester.

Gapinski said skeptics of students’ preference for mobile sites should take a close look at the private sector’s reaction to the growth of mobile devices and the decline of desktop computers.

“It’s not to say this should be a primary consideration, but many companies outside of higher [education] are now developing for smart phones … first, and then developing for a desktop website experience,” he wrote. “The demands of code and site development are starting to follow the conventions of devices sold to access the internet.”

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