Your Guide to Better Higher Education Website RFPs

February 15, 2024

We work with a lot of colleges and universities on projects that span everything from new web design frameworks to multi-site consolidations, comprehensive redesigns, full rebrands, and ongoing site maintenance. As a result, our business development team sorts through scores of higher ed requests for proposals (RFPs) on the regular. Some are good, some are bad, but most fall somewhere in between.

Here, we’ve distilled our observations into recommendations for crafting your university’s next call for bids to get you more qualified vendor leads, more precise quotes, and better overall project outcomes.

16 EDU RFP Tips You Can Use, Starting Today

1. Start as early as you can

Keep in mind that creating your RFP will require many time-consuming internal conversations, and prospective vendors will need at least a few weeks to respond. Once you choose an agency, it can take an additional 3 months or more for contract reviews and approvals before work commences. (Be realistic about your expectations here: Agencies can never start the day after signing. If they say they can, that should be a red flag that they’re either cutting corners or have an alarming lack of current work in their pipeline.).

2. Consult all relevant stakeholders & knowledge keepers

RFPs should be very comprehensive documents that communicate your organization’s collective needs and goals for your project. Make sure you incorporate input from key groups like Marketing Communications, IT teams, department heads, and high-level administrators before you hit send. Note: Some of these individuals can be consulted or informed via stakeholder interviews or surveys vs. direct input from the core project team.

3. Summarize the overall scope

Do this the best you can with the current information you have on hand, with the understanding that the agency needs to provide its own recommended approach and deliverables to meet your goals and requirements.

4. List individual desired goals, outcomes & pain points

Do you want or need:

New features, functionality, or content types like a blog?

A consolidated UX by partially or completely integrating subdomains or multiple sites into one experience?

A website that better meets accessibility standards?

Exclusion of certain pages or platforms that are navigable from your current site?

A reimaged aesthetic that aligns with updated brand standards?

Increased conversion rates for undergrad applicants?

Here is your opportunity to describe anything your current site doesn’t support that you would like to see implemented in the next iteration.

Flexibility baked into an RFP for a major Delaware Valley University website design and development project allowed us to propose leveraging quantitative data intelligence tools to speak more effectively to key audiences and stand out among peers.

5. Talk money

While providing an exact budget may not always be comfortable or possible, a thoughtfully estimated range will help agencies understand how to right-size their scope, what to include based on stated priorities, and what could be optional or phased out, if necessary. Important caveat: If you like what you see from an agency, don’t rule them out based on price point alone — there are often creative or phased solutions you can explore if their team and skillset are otherwise a good match.

6. Document the current state of your website

The following elements are extremely helpful in getting a lay of the land:

Platform and version in use

Specific flexible templates, components, or content types

Integrations with third-party systems and how they are currently connected to the website (e.g., iframe, API)


Number of pages

Condition of current content

Level of permissions/access for users

Any other relevant information

7. Describe your current operations team & model

Who are the knowledge keepers of your website, and how is it currently managed? For example, is there a centralized digital marketing team, or has IT traditionally been in charge?

A group of seven pink pawn opposite a purple pawn standing on a reflective green surface

8. Describe the project stakeholder landscape

Who is the primary point of contact dedicated to this project? And who else will be part of the day-to-day core project team vs. those who just need to be consulted or informed on progress? Keep in mind that surveys, workshops, and focus groups can be used to gather necessary input from broader groups of people including staff, faculty, or even students and parents.

9. Describe what you know about current audiences

Have you conducted research that shapes your understanding of primary user groups? We find that a lot of colleges and universities underestimate the number and types of audiences they need to serve, which may include:

  • Prospective students & parents
  • Current undergrad, grad & doctoral students
  • Faculty & staff
  • Alumni
  • Donors
  • External partners
  • Other departments
  • Media members
  • Community members
  • And more

10. List all project steps you’ve already started

Have you done any preliminary internal or external exercises to align on goals for the project, technical requirements, and/or vendor expectations? This helps vendors understand if your team is already in sync or if they need to plan additional consensus-building activities. Time may also need to be built in to inform other internal departments about what the new project means for them and their sites.

11. Detail other related strategic initiatives

For example, have you completed a recent brand refresh that yielded updated visual standards and messaging? Or would you like to use the site redesign as an opportunity to refresh your digital brand? Have you created user personas that will drive your content strategy? These are important to share up front so vendors know the starting point for required discovery and primary research.

Speech infographic with two chat bubbles, one green, and one black, green has a purple circle overlapping on the right and green horizontal lines next to it. Below the green bubble and next to the black bubble is an outline of an eye in green and purple.

12. Outline your platform plans, if possible

Do you want to remain on the same CMS or consider switching to a new one? If new, do you prefer open source or proprietary? Does the agency need to account for time to evaluate and recommend options? Keep in mind that evaluating a new CMS against your needs, coupled with the related costs of re-platforming (including licensing fees in the case of a proprietary option), will increase the scope and project cost significantly.

13. Account for availability & allocation of internal resources

Will any of your team members be assigned to tasks like content creation and entry? Is there a development team that will take on pieces of the implementation or need information or consultation along the way? Be as specific as possible on this division of effort.

14. Explain proposal requirements & format

Detail all elements you require vendors to include — such as company overview, approach, project team, case studies, and timeline — so you can compare submissions on a level playing field. However, don’t be so particular about formatting or ordering that it becomes prohibitive to agencies looking to demonstrate creative skills and other relevant content.

Close alignment on Cornell Law’s proposal needs was a key contributor to our creation of their new digital presence – ranked the #1 Law School Website by admissions advisory firm Spivey Consulting.

15. Describe your evaluation criteria

Since higher ed proposal reviews are typically done by committee, how will your team rank the criteria for which you are evaluating proposals? What is going to be weighted most heavily, and what do you want vendors to know about your priorities?

16. Include a realistic preliminary timeline

Deadlines often shift, so prospective vendors will take them with a grain of salt, but if there are immoveable milestones (like a need to launch in tandem with an important campus conference or university anniversary), it’s important to say so.

Have questions on the concepts presented here? Reach out! A member of our team will be happy to discuss them further with you.