The Shifting Definition of Reputation in Higher Education

Working at an agency primarily serving the needs of the higher education industry, I hear the word “reputation” quite a bit. In this business, reputation is everything (even more so than in many other industries) — and without a good one, your institution will have to fight harder than others to reach its goals. In higher ed: a great reputation could mean more funding, more attention, more applications, more everything.

But what is ‘reputation’? In the context of higher education, reputation is typically limited to the academic: graduation rates, test scores of incoming freshmen, rankings, etc. In fact, academic reputation for US News and World Report (which is known as ‘Expert Opinion’ in its ranking rubric) is defined this way:

Academic reputation matters because it factors things that cannot easily be captured elsewhere. For example, an institution known for having innovative approaches to teaching may perform especially well on this indicator, whereas a school struggling to keep its accreditation will likely perform poorly.

“We take a two-year weighted average of ratings from top academics – presidents, provosts and deans of admissions – who rate the academic quality of peer institutions with which they are familiar on a scale of 1 (marginal) to 5 (distinguished).”

In other words (and not surprisingly), the way USNWR defines reputation for its rankings is exactly how institutions talk about reputation. But what if the definition of reputation was expanded to include some of the other important factors that make a full, and supportive college experience?

If the events of the past several months have taught us anything, it’s that the reputation of a higher education brand is about far more than mere academics. A school’s reputation isn’t just about how well a student learns on your campus, it’s also about how well a student lives on your campus.

 Responsibility — COVID-19 

All invested eyes are on your institution, waiting to see what the fall semester might look like. Will instruction be on campus and remote? On campus and in person? Fully remote? Whatever path you take, your rationale, your plan and your backup plan will be what students and their families will be using to make decisions. Thoughtful action, a sound communication strategy, and a solid strategy to deliver instruction and safety will be just a few of the new inputs to your institution’s reputation.

 Accountability – Racism/Discrimination

It doesn’t take much more than a search on social media to understand how Black students feel on your campus. Some of America’s most storied campuses have deep and direct connections to slavery and discrimination – and those histories are becoming more well known among prospective students, their families, and the surrounding community. Are you committed to change? Are you committed to support? Do you have what you need for the students who need the most? These are not just components of the student experience; they are components of your reputation.

 Adaptability – Change

It’s hard for any organization to keep up with the constant shifts happening in the higher education space. Between Covid, protests, and figuring out fall, the capacity of your institution to not just weather these shifts but also develop new ways of navigating through or around them will be critical. Are you figuring out how to remove obstacles for your students or are you adding them? Is your website updated consistently with current information about important changes? Are prospects getting their questions answered in a timely and friendly way? Your answers to these questions will most certainly have an impact on your institution’s reputation.

The students you recruit find information about your institution in a multitude of ways: college websites and marketing material of course, but also social media, news outlets, chat rooms and people they might know. The information they collect from their research is what they will use to decide if your school is right for them. And since all of that information is likely to be about far more than just academics, it might be time to expand the definition of reputation.