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July 15, 2009

by The Forum Sucks

Forgive the blunt title, but this has gone on too long.  First, some backstory. When I was a wee high school junior in the streets of Manhattan, I would come home from school, take off my snow boots, and look for colleges in warmer climates via the web.

Everything I read about Claremont McKenna sounded amazing to me-- "Happiest Students," "Most Politically Active Students," "Best Classroom Experience," "Best Quality of Life."

I also read a hilarious, stereotype-enforcing "Unofficial Guide to CMC" on the website-formerly-known-as, which left quite the impression on my 16-year-old, wannabe Warren Buffet-Mike Bloomberg self.  (To this day, the copies of has some worthwhile stuff on it.)

Then there was was pretty bad.   It was composed of mismatched colors and awkwardly placed student portraits, and I couldn't find the information I needed.  To this day, I don't understand why "admission" and "prospective students" are different sections of the site (and now "" makes it even more confusing).   Granted, the old version of the site might have been better than the current "puke-on-puke yellow" color scheme, but peer institutions' websites looked far better to students who lived 3,000 miles away.  There weren't even pictures of the campus beyond thumbnail-sized shots of parking lots and buildings that looked like they were taken by a freshman with a polaroid camera and a scanner.

But I digress.

The point isn't that sucked then, it's that it continues to be awful when compared to our peer institutions' or even Pitzer's websites.  And it's getting comparatively worse.  Compare the of six years ago to today's and tell me you see change beyond the move to the "puke-on-puke yellow" color scheme.   Sure, a couple years ago CMC brought in some people to make the flashy "Life@CMC" application, but that doesn't excuse the rest of the website.

Needless to say, our website is vital for marketing to prospective students.  Still, admitted student questionnaries show the website is not actually a huge factor for most HS students who ultimately apply to CMC, but some have berated it in the survey anyway.  But many of those students would have applied to CMC regardless, as many of them have some human or geographic connection to CMC (which is stronger than any website).  It's the people we never learn about— those who are turned off by the website and decide not to apply, that we are losing.  Especially East Coasters like myself with no connection to anything or anyone Claremont.

And it's not hard to fix— it just costs a little money that would go a long way.

1. Keep the ITS department away from web design. They are understaffed, overworked, and not specially trained in or focused on web design.  They can code the backend, but they aren't designers.  I can't see a bigger disaster than letting ITS redesign the site themselves— it will be difficult to undo or disregard if it does not turn out well. Clarification 7/17/09: ITS has no role in the design of the website-- that is solely Public Affairs' responsibility.

2. Stop wasting money. A couple years back some students and administrators met with web consultants who wound up making dumb recommendations that the college never took.  It was a waste of thousands of dollars because the school had no idea what we needed and when it comes to professional web design, neither do most students.  And while student input should not be disregarded, the website is not really for current students— it's for prospective students, alumni, parents, and anyone else who wants to learn more about the College.

3. Hire an outside firm to see the process through from start to finish. White Whale Web Services, an Oakland-based design firm that is responsible for Berkeley Law's, Haverford College'sDuke University's, and Kenyon's College's website, specializes in web design for higher education institutions.  I e-mailed Jason Pontius, President of White Whale, who shared some of the costs behind a website redesign:

"Costs for a higher ed web site are of course flexible, and depend on lots of variables (how many sites are to be designed, whether information architecture consulting is part of the project, whether we come to campus for extensive community research, etc.).  In our case, we tend to be hired more for the level of service we provide (immersive, collaborative, community-focused) than for the price tag.  As a general ballpark figure, I'd say our .edu projects start at around $20K (strategy, consulting, small design projects, writing, etc.) and top out at around $150-200K (for deep, immersive, full-service redesigns over 9-12 months— we only take on a couple of these per year)."

4. Account for web design as a depreciable asset. To cover the $150-200K, it would be much easier to set aside $40-50K a year, allowing constant innovation and upkeep.  Trying to shell out $200k every four years is difficult and dependent on market forces, endowment returns, etc.

5. Do it now. After years of stagnation, Evie Lazzarino left CMC as VP of Public Affairs.  In February, the College hired Richard Rodner, who held the same position at UCLA, to fill the post. Mr. Rodner now has the opportunity to make right by, and it's an opportunity he cannot afford to waste.

It's pretty simple— find the money, hire professionals, and get it done.  Then keep it up to date with innovation and contemporary practices.

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