Behavioral Science on the Homepage

A website inspired by social psychology could help bolster student success.

Posted Jan 08, 2018

Source: Pixabay

Open any college’s website and you’ll probably see beautiful, hi-def images of life on campus, catchy slogans, and news about local achievements in research and sports. Clearly these websites serve an important role in a college’s student recruitment strategy. But a college’s website is more than a marketing tool; it also serves as a repository of information that students (not to mention parents, faculty, and staff) rely on to answer pivotal questions about financial aid, degree requirements, campus resources, and more. So why does it often feel like a scavenger hunt to find what a student would need to know on a college’s website?

Try this at home—go to the website of your current college or alma mater and take 5 minutes to answer the following:

  • What’s the school’s FAFSA code?
  • When does registration open for the next term?
  • Where can you find tutoring in math?
  • Are there funds available for student emergencies like loss of employment, auto repairs, or eviction?

How did you do? After working to support students at hundreds of colleges, I’m no longer surprised by how difficult it often is to find answers to these seemingly straightforward questions (and I’m not the only one). When a college constructs its website with an eye solely toward marketing, they unwittingly introduce barriers to success if key information on that site is buried, ambiguous, or absent entirely. And these barriers, as I elucidate below, may be even steeper for first-generation students. With that in mind, here are a few communication strategies inspired by behavioral science that could help institutions leverage their websites to better support student success.

Make it Easy

Behavioral economists tell us that if you want somebody to do something, make it easy. Heeding this advice, colleges could benefit by simplifying their websites with the goal of making information easy to find. A great example comes from my local institution, Bunker Hill Community College, which features “APPLY NOW” in 72-point font as soon as you load their website. This design choice serves BHCC’s goals with regard to recruitment while simultaneously making the first step in the application process simple for prospective students. Another inspired approach is to feature a search box front-and-center on the website, not unlike the most intuitive homepage in the world, Google. For example, Xavier University’s website lacks not for modern aesthetics, with its images of a snow-strewn campus and beaming students on graduation day, but the search bar dominating the homepage makes it simple for a student to go directly to the information they need to find.

While there’s no doubt that a navigable site will help all students, it is even more important for first-generation students who historically underperform due, in part, to having less college knowhow than their continuing-generation peers. That knowledge gap becomes exacerbated, therefore, when first-generation students cannot rely on the website to provide them with easy answers. Moreover, many first-generation students are still evaluating, even at a non-conscious level, their own ability to succeed in college. If they can’t even find the registration deadline or the school’s FAFSA code, what might that say to them about their chances of finishing their degree? These roadblocks, although trivial on the surface, shape a student’s interpretation of their college and their place within it, and those interpretations matter.

Reframing Values

The implicit messages embedded in a college’s website about its norms and values can also impact how a student performs in the classroom. A content analysis of four-year universities’ websites, which ranged from Ivy League institutions to regional public universities, revealed that the majority of sites frame the benefits of college in terms of what Dr. David Labaree, Stanford Professor of Education, calls vocationalism. Whether you want to be a bricklayer or a biochemist, vocationalism focuses on the personal gain in social mobility that comes from college. The extent to which the public good is emphasized typically relates only to growth for the regional, state, and national economies. While in today’s competitive job market, it’s certainly worthwhile for colleges to make explicit connections between their academic programs and students’ ability to viably obtain employment, these type of messages may not be the most motivating for students.

Many students, and especially first-generation students, are motivated to earn a college degree in order to make life better for their families, their communities, or for the world. While endorsing interdependent goals is associated with better academic performance, a mismatch between a student’s values and those reinforced by their institution can have a deleterious cognitive effect. For example, in a study led by Dr. Nicole Stephens, Associate Professor at Northwestern, college students in a laboratory were shown a welcome letter from their university’s president highlighting the campus culture in terms of independent goals (e.g., “creating your own intellectual journey”) or interdependent goals (e.g., “learning by being part of a community.”) First-generation students who read the interdependent version of the welcome letter performed significantly better on subsequent cognitive tasks than those who read the independent version; continuing-generation students were unaffected by the manipulation.

While the idea of college as a catalyst for changing the world may seem cliché, it’s not a message reinforced by colleges as often as you might think. A great exception can be seen at Oberlin’s website, which boldly proclaims, “Think one person can change the world? So do we.” This is a powerful message not only for students thinking about enrolling at Oberlin, but also for current students to see every time they look for the academic calendar or the location of the tutoring center. When a college’s website instead focuses on career paths and financial gains, it could persistently challenge a student’s perception of whether they belong at that institution. By streamlining college websites to make important information easy to find, and considering the values and psychology of first-generation students relying on those websites, colleges can make a meaningful change that will help retain more students.


Labaree, D. F. (1997). Public goods, private goods: The American struggle over educational goals. American Educational Research Journal, 34(1), 39-81.

Saichaie, K., & Morphew, C. C. (2014). What college and university websites reveal about the purposes of higher education. The Journal of Higher Education, 85(4), 499-530.

Stephens, N. M., Fryberg, S. A., Markus, H. R., Johnson, C. S., & Covarrubias, R. (2012). Unseen disadvantage: How American universities’ focus on independence undermines the academic performance of first-generation college students. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(6), 1178-1197.