Imagine a high school student who is blind or has a physical disability, who was planning a campus visit. You would expect the college or university to accommodate any challenge or limitation that student might face, and work to make sure they had the support they needed. There would be accessible parking spaces in the lots. Buildings would include wheelchair ramps and elevators. Tour guides would be quick to offer additional assistance to meet the individual’s unique needs.

Now imagine that same student’s experience with the school’s admissions website. If the website was designed using best practices for web accessibility, people who are blind or have low vision could use a screen reader to “view” the content and easily navigate across the site. People who are deaf or hard of hearing could read on-screen captions for videos. People with physical disabilities could use keyboard navigation or mouse alternatives to interact with the content.

First impressions are everything. Research indicates that today’s Gen Z prospective students make judgments about college websites in eight seconds or less. When prospective students begin looking at colleges, they start the evaluation process with the school’s website—the virtual tour is the new campus tour. For students and their parents, the first impression of a school is through its website.  And for students with disabilities, that first impression is going to be poor if the site is not accessible. Having a website that is not accessible to all prospective students means that some people will not be able to view all of the content. As a result, they will miss important information and find it difficult or impossible to navigate the site.

Online Accessibility Graphic

What is accessibility?

When people talk about website accessibility, they are likely referring to a set of standards and best practices that ensure that people with disabilities can use a website. You can learn about accessibility by reading about Section 508, which is the US federal guidelines requiring certain websites to meet a small set of requirements for accessibility, and WCAG or WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines), which is the widely accepted set of standards for website accessibility.

While accessibility is important for all websites, colleges and universities have even more compelling reasons to make sure their websites are accessible.

Why is accessibility so important for college admissions?

  • An accessible website will benefit your admissions department. Statistically speaking, you will have people visiting your site who will benefit from accessibility. As an example, the National Eye Institute estimates as many as 8 percent of men and 0.5 percent of women with Northern European ancestry have the common form of red-green color blindness. If your website follows color contrast guidelines, you will be more effectively reaching a large segment of prospective students and their parents.
  • Accessibility represents fundamental values of higher education. Higher education is defined by inclusivity, diversity and learning. It’s about expanding education and opportunities. That mission falls flat if college admissions websites put thousands of people at a disadvantage every year.
  • It’s good business. Every higher education institution—whether public or private—shares the goal of making sure every incoming class reaches its capacity with smart, talented students. With trends in applications showing a national dip, it’s more important than ever to attract students who will excel at your school. The fact that some students rely on website accessibility does not in any way preclude them from being successful in college.
  • You can stand out as a leader. Fewer people are applying to college, and competition is a challenge for everyone. There is only so much you can do to differentiate your institution from others. But while you may not be able to expand your campus or offer a new program, you can start to make your website accessible. This is one way you can differentiate yourself from your competitors.

Tips for Making College Admissions Websites Accessible

Accessibility Best Practices

Making your website accessible may seem like a daunting, time-consuming, expensive task. The good news is that changes don’t have to be made all at once. Instead of struggling to implement a site-wide overhaul, start with these easy wins.

Make your text size large

When it comes to font size, go big or go home. Forget 12px as the standard. Go for 16px for your base body copy. Reserve 12-14px for special cases or literal fine print. There are a lot of people who have minor visual impairment, including older users and people who forgot their glasses. Even people who have perfect vision will thank you if they are viewing your website on a screen with wonky resolution. Large text size is also a design trend, so you’ll be helping people view your content and you’ll look good at the same time.

Choose a color palette that meets contrast standards

Meeting color contrast standards is the best way to make sure people who are visually impaired or colorblind can view your website. Unfortunately, many designers are not in the habit of planning for color contrast when they are determining the brand colors and typographic styles for a website. If you check contrast before you finalize the basic color palette, you won’t have to worry about checking every single element on the site.

Use descriptive text for links

Avoid generic link text like “Click Here.” People using screen readers often “scan” the page by jumping from link to link, and they rely on link text to describe where that link will take them. For instance, say “View the events calendar” instead of “To view the events calendar, click here.” Not only is this an important accessibility feature, it is also a best practice for SEO and user experience.

Use consistent heading hierarchy

People who use screen readers also rely on headings to scan the page – just like sighted users. Make sure you use a logical heading structure to make the page easier to follow. Reserve the heading 1 tag <h1> for the page title. For the main content area, use the heading 2 tag <h2> through heading 4 tag <h4>. You can keep going, but most people won’t require additional levels. Make sure your typographic styles for headings make it clear—at a glance—what the hierarchy is.

Don’t rely on color alone

Color is a great way to communicate information, but it shouldn’t be the only way. This will be helpful for people who are colorblind or anyone dealing with a monitor that has poor color resolution. The most important place to apply this best practice is with interactive elements, such as button, links and form fields to indicate status or state changes. Instead of or in addition to color, you can use icons, typographic styles and language as a redundant way to convey information.

Strategies for Prioritizing Accessibility Efforts

Unfortunately, accessibility is often a great idea that never sees the light of day. Many people still don’t know what accessibility refers to, let alone how to plan for it in their websites. Even strong advocates may lack the time and resources to put their beliefs into practice. It’s often unrealistic for colleges and universities to do a complete accessibility overhaul on their existing sites all at once. Fortunately, that’s not necessary.

Here are a few strategies to start moving towards a more accessible website:

  • Start small. You don’t have to do everything. Concentrate on easy fixes. Continuously make your site more accessible over time. This is more manageable, and you will see results begin to gain momentum as you go.  
  • Take ownership. Whether you work on in the admissions office, on the IT team, or with Marketing—you can start taking responsibility for including accessibility as part of the discussion. Make sure people know about it, even if you can’t take action right away.
  • Join forces. You may not be alone at your institution. Find your advocates and allies. Reach out to other parties who might be interested in or benefit directly from making your site more accessible. Talk to the ADA compliance officer. See if there are student or faculty groups devoted to advocacy and equal opportunity.
  • Plan for it. Accessibility is rarely a line item on a budget or a milestone in a timeline. But it won’t just happen on its own. Even if you are not able to do much now, start planning for opportunities to improve by setting aside resources and including accessibility into the next website redesigns or upgrade.   

In Closing

If this is the first time you are thinking about your website’s accessibility, we hope we have illustrated how important it is to prioritize making your college website more accessible.

If you have been advocating making your college website more accessible, we hope this gives you some good ideas for how to proceed. Check back soon for more articles and resources about accessibility.