By Derek Newton
Reposted from Forbes, with permission
A month or so ago, marketing experts and college leaders gathered in Chicago for the American Marketing Association’s Symposium on the Marketing of Higher Education.
And while it was disorienting and disconcerting to hear the indispensable experience and value of college education discussed in terms of sales funnels, yield rates, and conversions, a presentation by polling and research firm Morning Consult may have turned a contemporary conventional wisdom about colleges on its ear.
Delivered and led by Rahul Choudaha, the Managing Director of Higher Education at Morning Consult, it was an examination of brand power and trust in higher education – two of the biggest factors in college interest and enrollment. And, by extension, two of the biggest factors in college growth and success.
The conventional wisdom is that colleges and universities are undergoing a significant loss in public confidence – that people simply trust higher education institutions less than they used to. This idea is usually offered in concert with the largely incorrect idea that the cost of college is unreasonable and increasing and/or with the incorrect idea that college graduates can’t get good jobs. Or that graduates are loaded up with debt. And can’t get good jobs. Take your pick.
But what the Morning Consult research offered was context.
It’s not that confidence in colleges and universities is down. It’s that confidence and trust in all institutions is down, across the board. In fact, contrary to the popular wisdom on this, colleges and universities are the most trusted institutions in the country.
From the research summary, “Universities are more trusted than other major American institutions: Overall, U.S. colleges and universities command greater trust than the government, corporations and the media.”
According to the presented data, about 59% of US adults say they have some or a lot of trust in US colleges and universities. That may not sound great but compare it to the 42% trust number for American corporations. Or the 39% for the US government. Or the 34% for the US media. In that company, the standing of higher education is downright lofty.
More importantly, it calls into question whether anything colleges have or have not done is responsible for the erosion of confidence and trust. If everyone is sinking, it’s pretty hard to pin any specific blame on the best of the bunch. And it feels as though comments about tuition, debt and employment are just explanation-seeking for low trust scores that are entirely out of context.
What is troubling about the overall trust scores from Morning Consult is the age disconnects. While trust for higher education is at 63% among Baby Boomers, it’s just 51% among Gen Z adults. That’s not a major gap. But since younger people are the ones making choices about college, it’s worth keeping in focus.
But what sticks out from the research even more starkly than age is partisanship. And although the team at Morning Consult did not say this directly, it is clear from the data that American colleges and universities don’t have a trust problem, they have a partisan political problem. And those numbers – that divide – is dragging down the overall numbers.
Morning Consult put the obvious rather delicately in their slides, saying “public trust in U.S. colleges and universities is split along political lines.” Adding, gingerly, “American colleges and universities need to put more effort and thought into building trust among some demographics than others.”
That’s like saying the Titanic needs to work more on buoyancy than water retention.
According to the numbers, 74% of Democrats have some or a good amount of trust in American institutions of higher education. For Republicans, that number drops to 50%. The real hole in the trust data is that, on this question, non-affiliated independent voters more closely mirror Republican sentiments – showing a tepid 52% trust level. That’s why overall trust for colleges and universities balances out at 57%.
Though, once again, we see this partisan lack of trust across all institution types, not just in education. While the partisan gap for higher ed is 24% – Democrats 74% and Republicans 50% – that partisan gap is 29% for the US government (57% to 28%) and 34% for the US media (53% to 19%). Contextually, when trust among Republicans for the government and media is only at 28% and 19% respectively, the 50% trust rating for higher education doesn’t look so bad.
In other words, it’s not that the public distrusts education institutions. It’s that Republicans especially distrust all institutions, colleges included.
Adding more credibility to the context of distrust, Morning Consult shared data on some specific education brands – Johns Hopkins, Howard University, and the University of California, Berkeley – along with their partisan trust breakdowns.
Johns Hopkins, the presenters said, was among the most trusted university brands in their survey, scoring 59% with Democrats, 41% with independents, and 42% with Republicans. Howard garnered a 51% trust level with Democrats, 28% with independents and just a 10% trust level with Republicans. For Berkeley, the trust score breakdown was 54%, 17%, and negative 5%. Yes, negative trust.
Keep in mind that for these three schools, Democrats were pretty consistent – 59%, 51%, and 54%. Republicans and independents were not, and the deeply distrusting sentiment tanked the overall scores considerably.
The point to consider based on this survey data is that what we think of as negative feelings for American schools isn’t universal. In fact, it’s likely just one of several institutions caught in howling partisan crosswinds.
Americans are not sour on universities because their tuition is too high or because they spend too much on athletics, or whatever explanation you favor. The truth is that some Americans are really sour on many institutions in general and on some institutions specifically. And because they are, we may be completely misreading how Americans actually feel about our cathedrals of higher learning, as well as why they feel the way they do.