Rice University took home the top prize for best school or university website at this year’s Webby Awards, and the Western Washington University Department of Design received an honorable mention at last year’s Awwwards for its website redesign.
But what exactly makes a college website great? Here at Kanopi, we think higher education websites should:
- Meet the needs of their users and the needs of the school
- Be easy to use and accessible to as many people as possible
- Offer a great user experience (UX)
- Look great on any device
If you’re considering a rebuild or redesign of your college website and looking for inspiration, you’ve come to the right place!
We’ve pulled together what we think are the 20 best college and university websites to explain what they are doing right and why. At the end of this post, we also outline web design best practices that can help you build a website for your institution that’s a joy to visit and meets your user’s needs.
Table of contents:
- Why are College Websites So Important?
- 20 Best University Websites
- What Should a University Website Look Like?
- Building Your College Website with Agency Help
Kanopi has partnered with several colleges and universities over the years to build beautiful, easy-to-use websites that boost enrollment. If you’re ready to launch a website redesign to make your university website the best it can be, contact us today.
Why are College Websites So Important?
A university’s website is the single most influential resource used by prospective students to hunt for a higher education institution.
That means your college website matters — a lot.
A university website needs to meet the needs of many different users. Every site has to provide vital information to current students, staff, parents, and alumni. At the same time, a college’s website needs to empower new students and donors and help recruit staff.
To meet these objectives, college websites need to be kept up-to-date with upcoming events, announcements, and information on classes, majors, and programs.
Overall, a university website must attract and inform through relevant, timely, and engaging content that’s tailored to several users, which is no easy feat!
20 Best University Websites
In no particular order, let’s take a look at Kanopi’s picks for the 20 best college and university websites:
- Kenyon College
- Rice University
- Cornell University
- McGill University
- Loyola University Maryland
- WWU Department of Design
- The University of Pittsburgh at Bradford
- Northwestern University
- Stanford University
- University of Arizona
- Oxford University
- University of Notre Dame
- University of Pennsylvania
- University of British Columbia
- University of North Texas at Dallas
- Rhode Island School of Design Alumni Website
- Oberlin College and Conservatory
- The University of Texas at Austin
- Morehouse College
- Georgetown University
1. Kenyon College
Kenyon is a small private liberal arts college based in Gambier, Ohio. Although Kenyon’s student population is a mere 1,660, its website’s unique and streamlined design puts it head and shoulders above many larger schools’ sites. Their website was even celebrated this year as a Webby Award honoree.
Why the Kenyon College website made the list:
- Their homepage takes a bold, minimalist approach with a standout quote and unique birds’-eye image perspective.
- The menu is concise but typographically interesting, featuring multiple subcategories and a convenient search function.
- Rather than acting as a dumping ground for links (as so many footers do), Kenyon’s website footer is thoughtfully designed with plenty of white space to let the images and links breathe.
2. Rice University
Rice University is a private research university located in Houston, Texas. RIce is noted for its high level of research as well as its strong academic reputation, with a 6:1 student to faculty ratio. The Rice website highlights upcoming events alongside statistics about the university’s rankings and student population.
Here are the standout features of the Rice website:
- The site offers a fun twist on the typical virtual tour with an unexpected layout that is still intuitive to use, and clever use of illustration as opposed to photography.
- The main menu pops open to cover the full screen, keeping the main homepage uncluttered while still offering a comprehensive menu that directs visitors to valuable site pages.
- Rice offers a highly comprehensive COVID monitoring subsite with information for students, faculty, and staff, including details about testing sites, policies, and more.
3. Cornell University
Based in Ithaca, New York, Cornell is a private Ivy League university that offers seven undergraduate colleges and seven graduate divisions. As a land-grant university, Cornell’s website keeps its research focus front and center while offering vital admissions and other academic information for current and prospective students.
What we like about Cornell’s website design:
- A college website that’s truly accessible to everyone? Cornell’s a strong contender for that title. They use vibrant and bold colors that pass accessibility contrast level requirements, and their images include concise and accurate alternative text.
- Their excellent mega menu packs a lot of crucial information into their homepage while remaining simple and easy to navigate.
- Cornell’s content reflects a friendly tone, and they use ‘you’ and ‘your’ pronouns to further engage visitors
- An up-to-date events calendar and powerful imagery are the icing on the cake of this engaging college website.
4. McGill University
McGill University is frequently considered one of the top universities in Canada. 30.5% of the student body consists of international students, making this college a truly global university. The university’s website reflects its global focus and diversity commitment with student profiles.
What’s excellent about McGill University’s web design:
- McGill’s homepage is clean and minimalist while still providing essential content to its users.
- Did you spot the empowering ‘Choose your program’ call to action (CTA)? It’s simple, straightforward, and it weaves prospective students into the university’s success story.
- They use real images and videos throughout their site, with their powerful ‘Made by McGill Anthem’ video taking center stage on their homepage. Films are a great way for prospective students to get a feel for your institution.
5. Loyola University Maryland
Based in Baltimore, Loyola University Maryland is one of the oldest Jesuit institutions in the United States. The Loyola Maryland website promotes the school’s Catholic values while providing plenty of information and opportunities for prospective students and donors alike.
What’s great about Loyola’s web design:
- We’re big fans of Loyola’s awesome hero image with a ‘Ready’ CTA that empowers prospective students as soon as they arrive on the site.
- Further, a new and engaging hero image appears on every refresh, keeping the homepage fresh and interesting.
- Loyola provides clear user pathways directly from the homepage for those who are researching undergrad, graduate, or continuing education studies.
6. University of Western Washington
Western Washington University is the northernmost university in the contiguous United States and is frequently ranked as one of the best public universities in the West. The university’s department of design offers graduate students the opportunity to expand their skill set with a holistic approach. Its website takes an interactive approach that helps inform and engage visitors.
What we like about Western Washington University (WWU) Department of Design’s web design:
- This school’s imaginative homepage hero allows users to move and position design imagery around the page with their mouse, perfectly reflecting their values and mission and engaging prospective students.
- They bring the impact of donations to life by including images and details of what users’ money goes towards under their ‘Give’ CTA, from a new Riso printer for their production lab to scholarships and field trips.
- The University of Western Washington Department of Design’s conversational and friendly tone of voice hooks users in and makes them want to read every last word of their content.
7. University of Pittsburgh at Bradford
The University of Pittsburgh at Bradford is a regional campus of the University of Pittsburgh. Nestled among the Allegheny mountains, this school offers 115 academic programs to its 1,500 students. Their website showcases the variety of outdoor activities available while giving prospective students a glimpse into what life at the university is like with a carousel of homepage images.
Why the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford’s web design caught our eye:
- Another award-winning website, and deservedly so, the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford’s engaging homepage hero includes a powerful student quote and message of ‘all are welcome here.’
- Their ‘Virtually Visit’ page shows how they are adapting as a result of current events to meet their user’s needs.
- From their main menu, they provide clear user pathways for students, parents, faculty, alumni, and the community to relevant subpages and resources.
8. Northwestern University
Renowned for its journalism, management, and music schools, Northwestern University stands apart as one of the most prestigious schools in not just the United States, but the world. Their website highlights not only the school’s prominent research focus but also its commitment to fostering a diverse, inclusive, global community.
Why Northwestern’s web design made our list:
- We admire the school’s homepage hero and its use of bold imagery to tell their alumni’s success stories and creatively incorporate current events.
- Their mega menu provides essential information to their users in a straightforward way with prominent CTAs under each heading.
- Northwestern’s strong stance on diversity and inclusion is front and center on its homepage, welcoming students, faculty, and staff from different intellectual, ethnic, economic, and geographic backgrounds.
9. Stanford University
Another prestigious American university, Stanford enrolls over 17,000 students. Their campus, located in Stanford, California, occupies 8,180 acres, one of the largest university campuses in the country. The Stanford website covers multiple aspects of the school’s mission, including events, academics, research, healthcare, campus life, and admissions with different headers throughout the homepage.
What we like about Stanford University’s web design:
- Stanford’s homepage includes brief sections on each of its popular landing pages, strengthened further with real imagery and quotes from faculty and students.
- Notice how each page has its own CTA button? This helps guide users to continue exploring the site.
- The fixed navigation across the top of the homepage provides easy access to each page and stays at the top of your screen no matter how far you scroll down.
- Stanford is clearly on top of current events, with prominent links to developing news stories in California and further afield.
10. University of Arizona
Located in sunny Tucson, Arizona, the University of Arizona is a large public land-grant university. The University of Arizona’s website not only covers all the academic information that prospective students are curious about, but also provides a thorough overview of the culture and experience of living in Tucson.
Why the University of Arizona’s web design is effective:
- We love how the ‘I am…’ CTA starts the user on their pathway through the site, guiding students, parents, alumni, and more to subpages relevant and necessary to their needs.
- Their friendly and humorous tone and use of ‘you’ and ‘your’ pronouns make their content fun to read, keeping users engaged throughout their site.
- Kudos to the school for adding pause buttons for all background videos to be inclusive of accessibility concerns.
11. University of Oxford
The oldest university in the English-speaking world, the University of Oxford has been in operation since the year 1096. As an extremely well-known research institution, Oxford’s website appeals to both its student population and a wider audience of individuals interested in research topics.
What makes the University of Oxford’s web design excellent:
- Oxford helps steer their users on a clear path as they begin their site journey from the homepage, featuring key pages like Admissions as well as easy-to-follow subpages.
- The attention-grabbing rotating graphic provides recent news and announcements on their homepage to ensure their users know about current events happening at the university.
- Their site’s imagery is backed up by succinct and precise alternative text, making their site accessible to people using screen readers.
12. University of Notre Dame
Powered by a Catholic mission, the University of Notre Dame serves 8,000 undergraduate students and is located in South Bend, Indiana. The university is noted for its football team as much as its prestigious academics, with both elements reflected on its robust website.
Why the University of Notre Dame’s web design impressed us:
- Another frontrunner for the most accessible college website, Notre Dame’s distinct and vibrant colors meet contrast standards. Their clearly defined link text lets users know exactly where a link will take them, if using assistive technology.
- Updated imagery from classes and campus life reassures users that the school is taking the necessary precautions to protect them in light of current events.
- Links to their YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn provide users with several ways to connect with the school online in a way that suits them.
13. University of Pennsylvania
Founded by Benjamin Franklin, the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) is one of the nine colonial colleges established before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The UPenn website offers a straightforward, clear view of the school’s priorities, including commitments to sustainability, diversity, and inclusion, as well as an effective COVID-19 response.
What we like about the University of Pennsylvania’s web design:
- As soon as users arrive on UPenn’s homepage, they are greeted with an engaging hero with details about how the school is adjusting to the impact of current events and how they are supporting faculty and students to succeed through this unprecedented time.
- UPenn is another example of a stellar college website when it comes to accessibility, with zero contrasting issues and concise alternative text for linked images, icons, and form labels.
- Scrolling further down the homepage, users are provided with quick links to connect with the school through various online channels, including Flickr, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and YouTube.
14. University of British Columbia
The University of British Columbia (UBC) is a top Canadian university, located in Vancouver. The university’s website is simple and clean, spotlighting campus news alongside a strong research focus.
What makes UBC’s web design great:
- We give UBC credit for meeting the industry standard when it comes to responsive design — their site is a breeze to navigate on a mobile device.
- The hero image is a single, simple CTA that drives the user to a topic the school feels is valuable and important.
- A quick scroll to articles below the hero includes large, easy to scan titles with brief descriptions to encourage user engagement and are represented by relevant and realistic imagery.
15. The University of North Texas at Dallas
UNT Dallas is the only public university in Dallas, Texas. The school is the top university in the state for serving first-generation college students. Their website offers clear CTAs that connect prospective and current students to valuable resources regarding programs, financial aid, advisors, and DACA.
Why UNT Dallas’ web design makes an impact:
- We couldn’t resist squeezing in a Kanopi partner. Working with a modest budget, we helped UNT Dallas make small changes to create big wins, including improved user pathways from the homepage and easier forms.
- UNT Dallas’ use of images and photographs helps tell their campus life story, assisting prospective students in getting a feel for the school.
- Lastly, visitors are greeted with a live chat feature as soon as they arrive on the site, providing a quick way for users to get their questions answered.
16. Rhode Island School of Design Alumni
The Rhode Island School of Design is one of the most prestigious fine arts schools in the United States. The school’s alumni website reflects its design-driven mission, showcasing unique and interactive elements that offer visual intrigue and engage visitors.
Here’s what’s exciting about the RISD Alumni website:
- The clever use of animation — including the news and events scroll in the middle of the page and the hashtag scroll at the bottom — adds interest but also serves a clear and useful purpose.
- The main navigation menu is simple yet still useful, with plenty of alumni resources.
- The stark black and white design maintains a streamlined look without feeling boring.
17. Oberlin College and Conservatory
Oberlin College, located in Oberlin, Ohio, has a rich history of progressivism and student activism. The university’s website features its diverse academic offerings, from a music conservatory to a strong liberal arts focus.
What we love about the Oberlin website:
- The engaging homepage video reel highlights various aspects of student life at Oberlin.
- The homepage also features a clear mission statement that tells website visitors exactly what the school values.
- Their dedicated virtual engagement page provides a variety of live and on-demand virtual content for prospective students, from campus tours to admissions information sessions and more.
18. The University of Texas at Austin
The University of Texas at Austin is one of the largest public universities in the United States, with a student population of over 51,000. The university’s website offers a comprehensive main menu that provides prospective students and parents with the information they need. The site also helps visitors find what they’re looking for with a set of four CTA buttons that link to high-demand pages.
Here are the most effective elements of the UT Austin website design:
- The eye-catching CTAs right underneath the main menu capture visitors’ attention immediately and provide valuable, timely information.
- Texas’ burnt orange brand color contrasts stylishly with the effective use of white space and bold text.
- The main navigation menu is streamlined, using the simple words “Explore,” “Apply,” “Afford,” and “Enroll.”
19. Morehouse College
Morehouse College is a private, historically black men’s college located in Atlanta, Georgia. The school is noted for playing an important role in the civil rights movement in the United States as well as for its robust alumni network, known as “Morehouse Men.”
Why the Morehouse College website stands out:
- The engaging reveal-on-scroll homepage design offers intrigue as you move down the homepage.
- Using the tagline “More” throughout the page helps provide continuity.
- Their “We are Morehouse” page effectively showcases many of the school’s notable alumni with high-quality portraits and brief profiles.
20. Georgetown University
Georgetown University is a private research university located in Washington, D.C. This highly-selective school is also the oldest Catholic university in the United States. The Georgetown website offers information for its broad audience, from students and parents to alumni, faculty, and staff.
Here’s what’s exciting about the Georgetown University website:
- The site’s top-level menu specifically addresses different audience members with clear links to guide users to the information they’re looking for.
- Their homepage video effectively captures different aspects of student life, giving prospective students a comprehensive overview of university life.
- The site also gives students, faculty, and alumni space to share their personal perspectives on what life during and after attending the university is like.
What Should a University Website Look Like?
If you’re looking to improve your college or university website, there are plenty of best practices to adopt into your web design strategy. First and foremost, you should tell the story of your school and what you stand for using your site’s written content, imagery, videos, and CTAs.
Then, determine how you can incorporate these 12 elements of effective university website design:
- Clear user pathways. Determine what your website visitors are looking for by conducting user research. Instead of relying on assumptions, carry out a website audit and audience review to figure out who is actually using your site so you can take additional steps to understand their unique needs.
- Simple and uncluttered design. Less really is more. Keep your site streamlined and to the point. Also, remember that white space is your website design’s best friend.
- Short, powerful, and personal CTAs. Your CTAs should be brief and easily understandable. For a little extra help, review Kanopi’s advice for optimizing your CTAs.
- Straightforward menu. Target your users’ needs to help steer them on the right path through your site.
- Accessible content. Ensure your site adheres to accessibility and compliance laws such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Check out some of Kanopi’s favorite tools and tech to ensure your site meets these standards.
- Updated content. Keep an eye on your events calendar, social media feeds, and announcements, and update these elements as needed. Highlight current events to show your users you’ve got your finger on the pulse and can help them stay informed.
- Multimedia. Bring your campus and academic programs to life with virtual tours and videos from faculty and alumni, robust photo albums of different campus sites, and other multimedia elements.
- Updated system and plugins. Ensure your CMS and plugins are updated when new versions become available so your site remains speedy and secure.
- Uniform branding. Visitors should instantly recognize that your website belongs to your university. Ensure your school’s colors and logos are consistent and presented in an aesthetically-pleasing format.
- Mobile-responsive design. Statistics show that the average member of the upcoming generation of college students, Gen Z, unlocks their phone approximately 79 times a day (more than any other generation). Your university website must be mobile-optimized to offer just as valuable an experience for mobile users as you do for computer visitors.
- Continuous improvement mindset. Take a continuous improvement web-design approach by making frequent incremental changes rather than major overhauls. This ensures you are getting the most out of your investment, and you are set for long-term growth.
- Personalized outreach. Use empowering language, a friendly tone, and pronouns like ‘you,’ ‘us’ and ‘we’ to build a digital connection with prospective students.
Want to better ensure your university website will support you for the long haul? Download our How to Make Your Site Last eBook to learn more.
Building Your College Website with Agency Help
A website design agency can help you optimize your college website by organizing content in a way that’s both intuitive and visually pleasing. These specialists can offer a website growth plan once your website launches as well as continuous support as your website expands.
For example, full-service web agencies like Kanopi offer a robust catalog of services to help support university websites at any stage of their development, including:
- User research and persona development
- UX blueprint creation
- Content strategy
- Website design and development
- Ongoing support
Working with a dedicated web design agency could give your university website redesign project the structure and expertise needed to be successful.
Kanopi offers flexible and tailored website support services. Contact us if you’re interested in taking a continuous improvement approach to your college or university website.
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