It’s not uncommon to hear from students on the cusp of beginning their college experience that they are excited by the opportunity to start fresh in a new place. They’ve matured and changed over time, and they have the chance to present themselves as they wish to be presented to people who haven’t (yet) formed opinions about them.
Colleges and universities can do the same thing by exploring new markets. Prospective audiences in new markets are blank slates onto which the institution can imprint perceptions that more closely resemble the shape and character of the school as it is today rather than how it was decades ago.
Although the challenges of exploring new markets are legion, so too are the long-term benefits. Diversify your recruitment footprint and you’ll establish a reputation in a new market that accurately reflects the quality and success of your institution today.
Image and Perception Research
While communicating one’s value to a new audience can be difficult, it is sometimes equally as challenging to address and correct the outdated perceptions that may exist among those from within the university’s home market.
I worked with an institution that conducted image and perception research among the school’s various markets. The study found that the most inaccurate perceptions of the institution’s quality were not to be found among residents of tertiary states; nor were they found among people located in exceptionally competitive markets with myriad school choices.
Rather, the most inaccurate perceptions of the university were held by residents of their very own state.
The Plague of Legacy Perceptions
Sometimes pervasive and often slow to change, legacy perceptions can plague an institution from recruitment to advancement, and experience would suggest that the story of this university is not an isolated one. In fact, the data points to a fairly large segment of schools that may be facing similar challenges in their home markets.
Enrollment and migration data compiled by the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) show the composition of an institution’s enrollment on a state-by-state basis. If we accept that a school that has undergone change has also explored new geographic markets outside of its home state, then it stands to reason that the percentage of students drawn from an institution’s home state would decline over time. In other words, the school has begun fishing in new ponds and the proportion of students coming from the local area has declined (slightly or not so slightly) over time.
We collected enrollment data for nearly 900 private colleges and universities to examine the proportion of students from the school’s home state between 1986 and 2014 (the oldest and most recent years, respectively, for which data were available)1. On average, the proportion of a school’s enrollment coming from its home state declined by 3.8 percentage points during this period (62.6 percent to 58.9 percent).
There are, however, many schools that underwent more significant changes in enrollment in the past several decades. For simplicity’s sake, all schools were sorted into one of 10 categories based on the magnitude of change in the proportion of students coming from the school’s home state.
Trends for the 10 Categories:
The light blue line extending from the upper-left corner of the chart to the bottom-right corner represents those institutions that experienced the most dramatic changes in enrollment during this period. In 1986, nearly 90 percent of new students at these institutions were drawn from the schools’ home states whereas, by 2014, that percentage decreased to slightly more than 30 percent. This category of schools includes outstanding institutions with national renown (e.g., Northeastern University) that have profoundly changed their composition and positioning through enrollment.
During this period, not only did the geographic composition of these institutions change, but so too did the academic strength of their students: the ACT mid-range for these schools increased from 21 to 26 in 2001 to 24 to 29 in 2014; at the same time, the SAT mid-range increased from 1015 to 1234 (2001) to 1075 to 1297 (2014).
It is understandable, then, that members of the local community or residents of the school’s home state would have outdated perceptions of a college or university that has experienced such changes. Even for schools that have undergone transitions to a milder degree or in a different respect (e.g., academic programs, athletics, name change, etc.), there is reason to suspect that those in the school’s home market still think of the institution as it was rather than how it is.
Better understanding those perceptions can be the first step toward correcting mistaken opinions, enhancing the institution’s visibility in the local region, and recruiting desired students from the home market.
1. Includes all private colleges and universities in the US with total undergraduate enrollment of at least 500 students. Proportions of students from each state were calculated using only domestic enrollment.↩