The world of higher education has obviously entered into a period of many changes. Major universities have jumped into the MOOC game, classrooms have been flipped, competency based learning is going mainstream, government at all levels is demanding measurable outcomes, traditional tuition increases that outpace inflation are coming under attack, non-traditional students have become the new tradition, and the continuing tight financial environment for higher education is forcing many institutions to reexamine their organization and mission. Under such conditions, it is interesting to consider the bases for reputation and brand in higher education, and ask how the changes we are seeing might impact the brand and reputation of different types of institutions. What follows are my first tentative steps to address this issue.
We should start with some definitions. Reputation and brand are related, but as Ettenson and Knowles point out, different in important ways:
Simply put, brand is a “customercentric” concept that focuses on what a product, service or company has promised to its customers and what that commitment means to them. Reputation is a “companycentric”concept that focuses on the credibility and respect that an organization has among a broad set of constituencies, including employees, investors, regulators, journalists and local communities — as well as customers. In other words, brand is about relevancy and differentiation (with respect to the customer), and reputation is about legitimacy (of the organization with respect to a wide range of stakeholder groups,including but not limited to customers).
Thus, brand and reputation obviously influence each other: some component of customer perception (brand) is influenced by the way the organization is viewed broadly (reputation), and the view of the broader set of stakeholders (reputation) is based in part on how the customers view the institution (brand).
REPUTATION: Colleges and universities have many missions: primary among them are education at a variety of levels (e.g.associate, bachelors, professional master's, Ph.D.), socialization of students (both into society and into the disciplines) and research that advances knowledge and practice. Of course, not all institutions have all of these missions, and those that do will have them in varying proportions. As a consequence, the stakeholders that define institutional reputation generally come from many areas.
For a variety of reasons, the strength of the research mission has come to have a particularly strong weighting in the creation of institutional reputation. Part of this is "what can be measured will become important". Of the multiple missions, the value and quality of the research output is the most easily measured. Standards of research are relatively the same globally, and scholars around the world are constantly judging the importance of new research findings produced by their peers. In addition, corporations and governments depend on the research outputs of higher education as an important input to many of their activities, and consequently very significant cash flows into the institutions whose research is judged to be of high quality by these stakeholders. In higher education, as in many endeavors, more money translates into more capacity and visibility, thus more reputation. In addition, while education and social development tend to be only locally visible, research is globally visible and thus provides institutions with a global reputation..
These characteristics of research increase the desire of institutional leaders to hire ever-more research-active faculty. In order to pursue this desire within the multi-mission university without seeming to downplay the other core missions, it was convenient for university leaders to postulate a positive causal relationship between research excellence and teaching proficiency. Although there is little evidence to support this postulate and much to contradict it (at the undergraduate level at least), incessant repetition has led the public to embrace this relationship. Consequently, a good reputation in research tends automatically to lead to a good reputation in education and thus a good reputation overall.
As has often been noted, one consequence of this reputational close-coupling of research and teaching skills is that large numbers of institutions whose focus is on undergraduate education have encouraged/demanded that their faculty engage in some level of research. I see hundreds of glossy brochures each year from what are fundamentally teaching institutions -brochures aimed broadly at stakeholders who help define reputation. These brochures are filled with research stories about their faculty; seldom does any story about education at the institution appear. Increasingly, these institutions are seeking to improve their educational reputation and competitive position by leaning on the postulated teaching/research quality relationship.
Unfortunately, as Christensen et. al. have shown, adding a research component of almost any size to a teaching college greatly increases costs. As we move forward in a world in which the financial environment for higher education is increasingly threatening, it is likely that many of colleges whose missions emphasize teaching will find that they cannot continue to maintain even a comparatively low level of research. Even many of the research universities below the top tier may find that they must invest less in the research function and research faculty. Institutions of all levels that are forced to deemphasize research will likely face significant reputational problems due to the now-widely-accepted view that good research leads to good teaching - a view that they themselves probably previously supported and emphasized in building their reputations. Thus for many institutions below the very top tier, the challenge will be to change the reputational conversation to one that places higher value on a broader set of accomplishments.
BRAND:The issue of how the educational component of higher education is viewed by the customer is complex due to the characteristics of the product. Higher education is often used by economists as an example of a credence good - a good whose utility impact is difficult to determine by the consumer in advance of consumption, and remains difficult to determine even after consumption. In higher education, very little data exist describing what is actually learned and the benefits that the consumer ultimately derives from that learning. Since little information exists on the outcomes of education, the value attributed to it tends to be based on surrogates.One of these surrogates is the research output of the faculty (the influence of reputation on brand). Other traditional surrogates include expensive, up to date facilities, extensive student extracurricular activities, academic quality of incoming students, and the breadth of the curriculum. As often happens with credence goods, price becomes a surrogate for quality, as is the difficulty of obtaining the good, i.e. the number of applicants rejected. And of course, the age of the institution is a powerful surrogate -centuries are best!
Use of these traditional surrogates has lead to a complex hierarchy of brand in higher education. There is a continuum of brand strength to be found among the thousands of accredited institutions that make up the universe of higher education in the United States, but only a few hundred institutions (at most) have created widely recognized brands. Whatever the current strength of the brand, however, it is primarily a credence brand, based on surrogates rather than direct information of the value of the educational product.
Several of the changes mentioned in the first paragraph of this post have the effect of changing this situation. Such changes as competency based learning and outcomes measurement reflect an effort to make higher education more like what economists call a search good- one where the utility of the product can be evaluated before it is consumed. Direct comparison of products is obviously possible for search goods, leading to increased competition.
It should be clear to most people that much of higher education can never be transformed totally into a search good. Many of the benefits of a college experience, especially those that appear over the longer term, are so intertwined with the characteristics of the individual student and subsequent life experiences that they cannot be isolated and measured. However there certainly are many shorter term outcomes that can be measured, but currently are not being measured in a meaningful way. This situation will likely change, as more and more outcomes measures become available. Thus the evolving brand will probably contain a credence component primarily based on surrogates, and a new search component that is based on outcomes of the educational product that can be measured.
The current credence-based brand implicitly contains expectations of educational outcomes in both areas that could be measured at graduation (e.g. writing skills, levels of subject matter knowledge, job placement) and those that are are difficult, if not impossible to measure because they depend on how the education interacts with future life experiences (e.g. ability to function as a citizen, satisfaction with life and work experiences, success). Thus, as more outcomes measures are introduced, some portion of the current credence-based brand will be transformed into a search component. When this happens, all institutions will be challenged to demonstrate that they actually perform in those measurable areas at the level that they now implicitly suggest.
Beyond that, the impact on brands of the changes taking place in higher education will likely depend on several factors. Arguably, the most critical of these is the relative importance in the current brand of the shorter-term, potentially measurable areas to the longer-term unmeasurable ones. If one thinks of the current brand distribution in terms of these parameters, a reasonable observation is that the highest value current brands actually promise the most in terms of the longer-term, unmeasurable outcomes, and that the ratio of unmeasurable to measurable outcomes decreases as the value of the current brand decreases.For example, Harvard's brand might be described as opening up an unequaled lifetime opportunities for graduates (an unmeasurable claim), while a particular community college's brand might be described as preparing students for their next job (a measurable claim). If this argument is correct, it is unlikely that the newer search component of brand will have a major impact on the resulting brand value for the institutions with the highest current (credence-based) brand, since students pick those institutions for factors that are primarily unmeasurable. At the other end, the potential impact of a search component of brand on an institution which currently has a lower value brand will probably be very significant. In this case, almost all of the current brand is due to components that eventually can be measured - a condition that can lead to commodification of product and competition-driven falling prices.
One can also look at the what these changes might mean for the non-traditional higher education institutions such as University of Phoenix, University of the People, and Straighterline. These institutions utilize business models that maximize the power and efficiency of new approaches and technologies, and often are aimed at non traditional students. Thus these models only weakly involve many of the key surrogates of the traditional credence model, e.g. number and research output of tenure track faculty, high level of resources per student, expensive facilities, and high SATs of incoming students. Consequently, this group of institutions typically has a relatively low traditional credence brand. Much of their brand value comes from focus on meeting educational imperatives of non-traditional students through flexible program formats (e.g. online), curricula responsive to job needs and job placement, and lower cost. In fact, most of the components currently leading to brand value for this group of institutions are measurable - they basically have search brands. As such, it is not surprising that members of this group have been strong supporters of outcomes measures in higher education: many of them believe that they will be able to demonstrate better learning outcomes (of the measurable type) than many more traditional providers. It is likely that these institutions will be increasingly moving into direct competition with traditional institutions whose brands are primarily search brands.
It is obvious that a credence brand has certain advantages over a search brand. The latter is subject to continual monitoring by customers, and slippage vis a vis competitors will lead to immediate negative consequences; the former is based on beliefs that can't be validated or refuted, and likely to be only slowly changing. The latter enables comparisons that can lead to direct price-constraining competition, the former makes direct competition more difficult and so provides fewer constraints on price. However, the downside of a credence brand is that it is typically valued via a set of surrogates, and competition to excell in those surrogates can be expensive. More problematic, these surrogates are fixed in the minds of the customers as the appropriate way to value the brand, and it can be very difficult to change the surrogates if changing conditions necessitate changes in the business model.
Thus, difficult, changing times such as those we are encountering will probably lead to numerous efforts to create substitute, or additional surrogates for defining the value of higher education credence goods.We already see many institutions testing whether the traditional "scarcity" surrogate can be replaced with something else, particularly as online programs increase. MIT's awarding a certificate for a successfully completed MITx course is a probe in this direction. Arizona State University, which has grown its student body by about 50% in the last decade, is seeking to brand itself as a New American University, focused on being inclusive rather than exclusive and building quality of education through relentless innovation. New entrant Minerva, which lacks such traditional surrogates as tenure track research faculty and expensive buildings, is aiming to build credence brand by promising a rigorous undergraduate experience and education unlike those available elsewhere: for example, curriculum is designed such that every component builds expertise in critical thinking, logical analysis and clear communication, every student will live and study in a half-dozen cities in different parts of the world during their studies, and every student will do a year-long capstone project.
It would be surprising indeed if more institutions did not pay increased attention to building the credence component of their brands, and to do so by seeking to redefine or replace traditional surrogates with surrogates that better reflect specific institutional strengths and the fiscal realities of the times. .