The Benefit of Digital Agencies for Colleges and Universities

Ideas & Insights from Research & Design

A team of designers and developers working on a user experience tasks.

A college or university’s website is one of its most crucial touchpoints for prospective students. While we wouldn’t be so naive to say your enrollment and recruiting is solely dependent on your website, we all can agree that an ineffective website will hold you 

back from success. Considering the significance of what is at stake with your website, it only makes sense to refer to a team of experts on the subject matter.

While there are plenty of DIY tutorials on the web for engine replacements or how to repair the cement foundation for your home, it is highly advised for most people to call their local professional with thousands of hours of experience under their belt when needing such services. While the difference between an amateur and highly experienced professional may only be seen in what seems to be a minor part of most projects, it is exactly for those reasons why you’d want an expert team as your partner. Let’s explore why we recommend that colleges and universities hire agencies for digital and web projects, and the pitfalls to look out for when selecting an external partner.

Internal Team

Before diving too deep into hiring external agencies, it’s good to highlight the importance of the internal team. Whether you’re a small liberal arts college or a large state university, you’re likely to have an internal marketing/communications team. In most cases, this MarComm team is responsible for overseeing the website, managing content flow, and updating all communication/public relations. There may also be an IT team responsible for managing all of the internal networks, as well as making sure cyber security is kept up to date. These roles are very important and should not be replaced by an external agency. No one knows an institution better than its internal staff, and these administrators understand the key nuances and dynamics to successfully reach the school’s mission. Having worked with many colleges and universities, we’ve found a common denominator that is true for most admins and directors—there is always more work to be done than there is time in any given day. Administrators are extremely busy as it is... so adding the extra responsibility of web and digital projects—an area most admins don’t specialize in—is not best use of internal time and resources.

External Partnership Options

When looking to partner with an external party, colleges and universities have the option of hiring single freelancers or agency teams. While freelancers can be optimal choices for certain engagements, most of the time colleges and universities should look to partner with agencies. 

The Freelancer

One reason for hiring a freelancer is the level of expertise they may have in a specific area. The challenge with this strength is that it is also an achilles heel. Being so focused on one skill set usually means being less competent in other areas. This specialization may distract freelancers from seeing the larger picture, which is necessary when considering large institutions with a lot of moving parts. Expertise is good, especially when it is complemented with experts in other areas who can help design a more holistic solution.

A second reason freelancers are compelling is their relatively lower price points. To this point, we’ll emphasize the importance of investing to win wars, not pinching to barely win battles. Time and time again, we see situations where the cost to fix problems turns out to be way more than doing it right the first time around. 

So while there are certainly times when hiring a freelancer makes sense, outside of those projects most schools would be best served partnering with an external agency team with a team of expert practitioners.

The Agency

Digital agencies and studios differ from freelancers in that they typically have a team of experts in various disciplines. Common fields of specialization include design, engineering, research, and project management. Many agencies have other specializations depending on their overall positioning and what industries they serve. Agencies are in the best position to help colleges and universities when they are allowed—or better yet, encouraged—to leverage their expertise to implement solutions and complete projects. The best agencies focus on more than scope and deliverables. They focus on discovering underlying challenges and designing a solution that can be implemented and scaled.

Colleges and universities are a unique niche. While technically falling under the non-profit umbrella and also grouped with general education, higher education deserves recognition as its own vertical. The nuances of enrollment, recruitment, accreditation, and learning management, to name just a few, can make it seem like a foreign arena to the uninitiated. With that in mind, colleges and universities should partner with external agencies that understand higher education. Partnering with such agencies will undoubtedly result in better outcomes. 

Agencies that work with other higher education institutions should have developed some sort of pattern recognition when it comes to what successful schools are doing. This will provide you with an edge to reaching your goals faster and smarter. While it’s unethical to expect agencies to share confidential client information, agencies are expected to leverage all of their experience and expertise in delivering outcomes. That experience includes all of the exposure and learning from past higher education clients. 

Another nuance that is often overlooked is the importance of consensus building when making decisions and getting approvals. This is uncommon in enterprise, where there is typically one decision maker. In situations where decisions are made through committees and boards, it can help ensure quick and efficient project success to work with an external agency that understands that process.

Questions to ask any prospective external agency

A person writing out a checklist or todo list.

Can you send your portfolio of work?

This is an excellent screening question. While past work is not always indicative of future results, it certainly is a good way to validate any agency’s credibility in a particular space. Do you recognize any of their past clients? Better yet, are any of their past clients on your aspirational list of institutions to model after? Do yourself and your team a favor and be sure to ask any prospective external agency for their portfolio of past work before engaging on a project together.

Do you have experience working with this technology? 

Most agencies have a set of technologies they are experts on. Whether it’s a specific Content Management System (CMS) or specific type of development language, it’s important to partner with a team that knows your technology stack well. This will ensure that all implementation will be done in compliance with best practices for those technologies. And keep in mind that not all hours are created equal. While one agency may charge a noticeably lower hourly rate, another agency with expertise in a needed technology may turn out to cost less even with a higher rate. Focus on expertise and experience rather than cost. Your institution will thank you.

Can you provide us with client references? 

Most of the time, agencies are glad to point you to a couple of professional references for their work. Other times, they may have references on file or on third party review platforms. Whether or not you should require a pre-written reference should depend on the gravity of your project. Don’t be surprised if an agency asks for you not to check the references until the last phase of the selection process. They are being respectful of their client’s time, as they will with your time in the future!

Do you have any experience working with higher education institutions? 

This is a simple “yes” or “no” question that may or may not need further clarification. We’ve reviewed the uniqueness of higher education, and have emphasized the importance of partnering with agencies that understand the industry. Depending on your specific project, it’s up to you to decide whether this answer is important or not. Regardless, this is a good question to ask.


Oftentimes, colleges and universities have limited budgets while having tremendous pressure to deliver on their projects. Working with a credible agency that understands higher education is the best way to deliver success. Through pattern recognition, subject matter expertise, and a clear scope of deliverability, agencies are able to provide clients with a clear edge to succeed. As higher education continues to evolve, it’s the collaborations and partnerships with external agencies that will continue to innovate and introduce ways for administrators to adapt and improve their strategy — allowing them to be relevant and engaging for future prospective students.

Research & Design works with colleges and universities to create websites and learning experiences. Contact us to improve your student’s and user experience.