How College applications are influenced by eCommerce

Research has revealed that students applying to further education institutions prefer to browse and buy their courses online.

Websites based on an eCommerce structure have been shown to be more successful in gaining applications, as students are accustomed to eCommerce websites which provide a variety of sophisticated search tools and navigation paths. Rather than funnel students, websites which allow them to browse for courses are preferred. Allowing students to narrow their search using a variety of filters, including course type, level and area is recommended. Research has found that websites that do not offer this level of functionality could be alienating potential students:

“Many college websites simply provide an alphabetical listing of program offerings, requiring students to click into each one to see what it involves, and making it difficult to compare related programs. This may quickly frustrate students accustomed to the sophisticated search tools of online retailers like Amazon and Netflix”
(Scott-Clayton, 2011)

And not only do students prefer to browse online, they also prefer to make their ‘purchase’ and apply online, streamlining the entire decision making and application process.

The decision making process in choosing a college course and institution is a complex one, with so many options on offer and uncertain outcomes.

Research into the behavioural approach to understanding and influencing choice has found that people apply various coping strategies for processing large volumes of information, and are drawn to what is relevant and novel (Dolan et al, 2010). They tend to fall back on defaults and habits to help them decide, and are strongly influenced by social norms and what others do. This is part of what makes an online application system preferable; not only does it help to cope with large volumes of information, it is highly relevant to this generation. It also incorporates an element of novelty, as many colleges are still using paper-based application forms.

eCommerce websites and apps that allow students to book everything from cinema tickets to doctor’s appointments online are making online purchases a social norm for this generation. A system that allows students to apply online fits with their social norm expectations and previous experience, again reinforcing the suggestion that an online system is preferable.

Research into understanding the student choice process suggests that a simplified application process encourages student applications. Evidence from recent research in the US  indicates that students can be discouraged from applying if systems are perceived to be complex, especially with financial elements of an application (Betinger et al, 2009). The research also finds that students are influenced in their college application by technological systems that automatically identify eligibility for financial assistance, as with online application systems like eEnrol, which automatically calculates fees and discounts. Researchers found that potential students who received help such as pre-filled forms and automatic calculations of eligibility were 30% more likely to make an application.

As use of the internet has grown dramatically over the past few years, college websites are now one of the top influencers when making decisions about where to study. This has meant that Colleges have to ensure that their website is up to scratch, incorporating sophisticated search technology, being mobile optimised and designed around the user experience. As eCommerce and online applications continue to grow in popularity, having a robust online application system will also become a priority for Colleges.

Colleges who have taken the proactive step to implement online application systems such as eEnrol have found that they have proved very popular with students. Researchers at Richmond College, who use eEnrol, surveyed 1653 students about their application process, and 96.68% stated that they found the online application process either ‘Excellent’ or ‘Good.’

These findings are encouraging for other colleges who are considering moving to an online application system. Not only will they ensure that their system is relevant, novel and meeting the needs of their students, they can be confident that students will feel positive about using a modern system that is keeping up with technological norms.


Bettinger, E. P., Long, B. T., Oreopoulos, P., & Sanbonmatsu, L. (2009). The role of simplification and information in college decisions: Results and implications from
the H&R Block FAFSA experiment (NCPR Working Paper). New York, NY: National Center for Postsecondary Research.

Dolan, P., Hallsworth, M., Halpern, D., King, D. and Vlaev, I. (2010). MINDSPACE: Influencing Behaviour Through Public Policy. Cabinet Office: London.

Scott-Clayton, J. (2011) The Shapeless River: Does a Lack of Structure Inhibit Students’ Progress at Community Colleges? CCRC Working Paper No. 25

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