6 Elements to Enhance the Digital Course Catalog

8 min read

Benjamin Boivin

Keystone Higher Ed Blog (4)

Technology has changed the way prospective college students discover and engage with their future institutions. From virtual tours and Zoom interviews to YouTube videos and registering for classes, the Internet gives students what they want most, options.

While programs like User Experience, Data Science, and Social Media Marketing were not around a quarter-century ago, traditional programs like Accounting, History, Biology, and Education haven’t changed much in terms of credit requirements and core curriculum. Let’s face it, course catalogs are not the most exciting reading materials, but they are valuable for students (and their families) comparing similar degree programs at various institutions. It’s time colleges and universities took the course catalog to the next level, and we have the technology to make it happen.

The goal of any course catalog is to grab prospective students’ attention and answer the age-old questions, “Why enroll here instead of there?” The more unique courses, the better. Here are a few that caught our attention:

Innovative, pop-culture-filled, outside-the-box and oddly named courses may work from certain institutions, but you won’t need to reinvent the curriculum to reimagine the course catalog.

The essential first step: Add links.

Course catalogs transformed from direct mail to digital over the past 25 years. Accepted students in the 1990’s would receive a 400+ page course catalog in the mail, and today, most institutions host their catalog on the school website. While the convenience of a digital course catalog is more attractive than a content-filled book in the mail, it does come with some extra homework. Hyperlinks must be updated consistently to ensure accurate information and relevant content. When a prospective college student decides to research their future course plan, they should be rewarded with links that work.

So, what should you include? Here are 6 ideas to enhance your digital course catalog:

  1. Video Testimonials Recycle your marketing content and utilize it in the course catalog. You can also interview students or faculty members and ask questions relevant to each course. While this may seem like a serious undertaking, you don’t have to update everything at once. Focus on your most unique, popular, or reputable courses first and work on the generic courses later. No one knows your institution’s courses better than the people sitting in the classroom. Get their reviews, stories from the classroom, and what to know before the first day of class. This will provide clarity from a current student lens and may encourage more applications or enrolled students.

Here's an example from an Ohio State University biology student:


  1. Go Inside the Lab — Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) have been in course catalogs since the beginning, but state-of-the-art labs and technological advancements have changed the way students train and learn. Most virtual or on-campus tours offer visits to the lab, but course catalogs allow institutions to be more specific when it comes to lab time. Detail what students can expect from each class and link the course details to imagery or video. Also, apply this concept in the Communication, Graphic Art, Videography, or TV Production department.


Here's an example from the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Department at Dickinson College:


  1. In-Class and Extra Credit Examples — Show off your brilliant students by linking individual or group presentations in the course curriculum. Give prospective students examples of well-done college presentations. Highlight final assignments and reading material from each course. How are students utilizing technology in specific classrooms? Give examples of extra-credit assignments in the area — community service, field trips, museum visits, book or movie reviews, or any other way the curriculum is taught outside the classroom. Now is the time to convey the value propositions of the community and encourage students to think outside the curriculum.


Watch Emily Johnston’s Three Minute Thesis, ‘Mosquito Research: Saving lives with pantyhose and paperclips’ from the University of South Australia:


  1. Real-world Application (what you will learn in this course) — Earning good grades is important, but what students learn in the classroom should translate to internships or future careers. For those ambitious students reviewing the course catalog, it is crucial to showcase careers and internship opportunities for each department. Colleges can work with career development or internship offices to get detailed information from current students or recent graduates. This is an opportunity for students to explain how the course work in specific classes helped them land their first position. This is also a good place to add “Career Outcomes” based on majors and academic departments.


When parents ask, “What will my child do with a political science degree?” show them the Student Opportunity Overview video from the Central Intelligence Agency:


  1. Faculty Highlights — Everyone has a favorite professor. There is a reason so many graduates keep in touch with their teacher/mentors long after graduation, and your course catalog can help tell the story. Did a faculty member recently invent a new product, publish a book, conduct groundbreaking research, or chaperone a unique study abroad trip? Get students and their families excited about specific classes by hyping up the faculty members.

Check out Texas A&M Genetics’ GENE Faculty Highlights:

  1. Sample Assignments — One of the main questions high school counselors receive from students in the early stages is, “How is college different from high school?” Aside from a new sense of independence, the way students learn is different in college. There are added responsibilities, more reading, more late-night study hours, and various types of homework assignments. Add a “Homework Examples” tab for each of the courses.

Here are sample assignments from Georgia State University’s Guide to Writing.

Don’t Forget the Search Bar.

Downloadable PDFs are the most common online format for course catalogs, but today’s college-aged generation craves immediacy. This tip may seem obvious, but the more straightforward your course catalog is to search, save, and categorize, the more engaged the readers will be. Ithaca College lists their courses A-Z in their Academic Catalog. The University of Chicago gives clear instruction on how to navigate their College Catalog. And North Carolina State allows students to find courses based on career interest on their Class Search page.

Like any traditional college document, the course catalog is a vital piece of the enrollment puzzle but requires a digital overhaul for our modern students. Remember that you don’t need to change everything all at once. With minor adjustments, your institution’s course catalog can become a part of your student recruitment strategy.

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