A buggy parked on road in a small Texas town. Clouds overhead and old buildings on either side. Glitched out.
← All Articles

The cost of higher ed web teams

Joel Goodman + Kristin Van Dorn
/ 4 min read

Web management is a lot like managing a household. First, you have daily tasks involving taking care of your space and keeping things tidy such as doing the dishes and the laundry, clearing clutter, putting things into their proper places, and taking out the trash.

Second, you have ongoing home maintenance, such as repairing older appliances, upgrading appliances, fixing leaky faucets, and replacing air filters.

You might think of web management in daily tasks and ongoing maintenance:

Managing your content, design, and the organization of your site are your daily tasks.

Your ongoing maintenance tasks include:

  • Optimizing your Marketing Tech Stack
  • Optimizing your site for search engines
  • Optimizing your code for integrations
  • Updating your platform for security
  • Increasing and managing your site speed
  • Increasing and managing your site’s usability
  • Increasing and managing your site’s accessibility

Like caring for a home, you can fall behind in both daily tasks and ongoing maintenance. Many institutions of higher education do. You can have cluttered and disorganized sites with outdated content and design.

In a household, a leaky faucet left unattended can become a massive home repair or require an expensive remodel. And it takes time to find and hire qualified repair services. Similarly, if you leave old and forgotten code on your site and stop attending to accessibility guidelines or your site speed, you may have a bigger remodel on the horizon.

Many schools are understaffed to maintain a website independently. Schools that understaff their digital strategy teams fall into a common pattern:

  1. They spend a lot of money on a beautiful and contemporary redesign.
  2. In the first year, the staff does what they can to manage content and organization.
  3. But, the site quickly begins to degrade in accuracy.
  4. Then, people start complaining.
  5. Marketing creates expensive collateral pieces and strategies to work around a dysfunctional site.
  6. In a few years, leaders will want a new website. So, the school will undergo the search for an agency to redesign and rebuild.
  7. And the process starts again.

During this time, the institution loses ground in market share, brand equity, and student trust.

This is not a sustainable pattern.

What if maintenance isn’t enough?

The care and keeping of our websites has been the industry’s default position for at least 20 years. All the while, audience expectations and needs have sped past us. As they’ve piled up, maintenance tasks have supplanted strategy.

There isn’t another industry outside of higher education and healthcare where multimillion-dollar brands treat their websites as giant brochures. These brands realize that their customers expect more and they work to provide value to their audiences. In turn, they realize an increase in leads.

College and university websites are supposed to serve a bigger role than being dumping grounds for content. They should be revised and improved in purposeful cycles. New features should be developed based on data and released strategically rather than ASAP. Data should be measured and reactions to that data should provide strategic value to prospective students, donors, and other audiences.

A product strategy mentality toward the traditional higher education website will result in higher conversion rates and an explosion of growth in enrollment. But it takes a full team of experienced web marketers, designers, and developers to make this shift and start really competing against other institutions. And that means investment in staffing.

This has recently been the play for mega-universities. So let’s borrow from their playbook. For an in-house team to make you competitive, Bravery Media suggests a digital strategy team made up of, at a minimum:

Director of Web Strategy$120K
Digital Marketing Strategist$75K
Product Manager$71-$120K
Content Strategist x2$75K - $90K
Web designer with a UX research background$95K
Frontend Developer$115K
Backend Developer$115K
Data Analytics manager$105K
Digital Media Producer$71K
Accessibility Engineer$77K

Using median salary data from 2023, the pay for these positions should range from $70,000 to $130,000 per year to be competitive.

Then, you need subscription packages to:

  • Accessibility monitoring (e.g., Siteimprove)
  • UX tools and subscriptions (e.g., HotJar, Optimal Workshop)
  • Moz or another SEO service
  • GatherContent for content governance

You’re also responsible for your staff’s professional development, or their skills will not continue to yield the same returns as when you first hired them.

So, what can schools do if they have an under-resourced team or a backlog of deferred maintenance on their websites?

The first thing you can do is take stock of what you have.

  • What staffing do you have?
  • What tools do you have?
  • What budget do you have?
  • Where are your gaps?

When you have a sense of your gaps, you can consider how to fill them in the short, medium, and long term.

In the short and medium terms:

It will depend largely on the shape of your gaps. Sometimes, there is a very clear gap for a full-time front-end designer or developer. Sometimes, it’s a business analyst skill set or an accessibility expert. Most of the time, though, it’s not as clear-cut, or the gaps wildly exceed your budget.

Many institutions see full-time staff as the answer. Full-time staff members seem more affordable, easier to manage, and more responsive to the institution’s ongoing needs and changes. However, growing a dedicated and developed team from scratch takes time. And, ushering in new staff members in an under-resourced and flailing environment with a long backlog of deferred projects can demoralize new hires and increase your turnover.

Agencies can support you in the short and medium terms until you build a successful and sustainable base. Agencies can help you close those gaps efficiently, while you stabilize your recruitment and retention so that more funding is available to grow out your team.

In the long term:

It’s debatable whether a full-time, fully resourced internal web team is the best model for success in the long term for every institution. It depends on your institution’s size and whether or not it can justify the ongoing cost of a full team with the particular expertise each member renders. There are agency-of-record models where institutions outsource portions of their ongoing website hosting and maintenance the same way they might outsource IT services or their dining plans.

The goal is not to achieve website independence for its own sake but to find the right mix of staff and outside services to create an effective, responsive, and evolving website apparatus that supports all of your business goals.

When it comes down to it, outcomes are what matter. An underresourced web team hamstrings your outcomes. Whether those gaps are bridged via partnerships or improved staffing, it’s critical that colleges and universities reassess their spend.