Student Perception Challenges of Being Both a Faith-Based and STEM-Focused Institution

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

Dr. Mathew Isaac, Professor of Marketing at Seattle University, joins the podcast to discuss the recent research on how the religious language institutions use does in fact impact prospective students’ academic perceptions.

Universities just need to make sure that what they're presenting in those forced one size fits all communications are fitting with their strategic objectives, their identity and their positioning, and that it isn't kind of an ad hoc decision. You're listening to enrollment growth university from Helix Education, the best professional development podcast for higher education leaders looking to grow enrollment at their college or university. Whether you're looking for fresh enrollment growth techniques and strategies or tools and resources, you've come to the right place. Let's get into the show. Welcome back to enrollment growth university, a proud member of the connect Edu podcast network. I'm Eric Olson with Helix Education and we're here today with Dr Matthew Isaac, Professor of marketing at Seattle University. Matt, welcome to the show. Thanks for having me. Real excited to have you and talk with you today about potential perception issues with being both a faith based institution and a strong Stam University. But before we...

...dig in, can you give the listeners a quick background on both Seattle University and your rule? They're absolutely so. Seattle University is a Jesuit Catholic University in the Seattle area and I'm a professor of marketing in the Albert School of business here at at Seattle. You and we're I think we're going to be talking mostly about a paper that was recently published in the Journal of Advertising, which I co wrote with another professor here at Seattle, you, Carl Obermiller, and a CO author at Le High University, Rebecca on. I love it, Matt, to kick US off down this rabbit hole today. From a perception standpoint, is there in inherent identity conflict between being a faith based university and being a world class stem institution? It's a great question. I mean I think all throughout time, I think there has been this kind of idea of a religion science conflict that has emerged and we've seen it in many...

...other contexts. And even though I don't think consumers and people in general might hold these views or that religion and science are always antithetical, that they are opposite to each other, and maybe the case that somehow we exhibit or seem to have certain beliefs that that suggest that there is this conflict and that might come through when we respond to, for example, advertising from a religious university. So I don't think it's necessarily that people hold this belief that these two things are always income in conflict, but it might still come through somehow in affect our evaluations and our decisions. Yeah, and I think that assumption of some conflict is probably fairly intuitive to most people. But talk about what learning now. Talk about the recent research from the Journal of Advertising and what it actually discovered about how the religious language the institutions use impact their perspective, students...

...academic perceptions. Yes, so I think the genesis for this project was kind of our understanding. As we were looking around at different religious university websites, we noticed that many of them used a lot of religious language right on the home page, or they had religious icons that were featured prominently, a Christian Cross in the logo, whereas others, other religious universities, did not have as much religious words, religious language or images. And you know there are almost nine hundred sectarian universities in the US that are associated with the religious groups. So we were able to really look through all of these websites and we noticed this great variation in how much religious wording was being used and we started to think this may not be super strategic, and yet it might be affecting consumers and the impressions they form about the university, including, you know,...

...potential students, and so that let us down the path of this research. And the main finding from the work that's that was recently published in Journal of advertising is that for religious universities that advertise more strongly they're religious background on their website or in an advertisement, consumers do seem to make some inferences, and you know, there are some that are positive, where they might think that the university is stronger in religious related disciplines. But we do find pretty strong evidence that they do make an inference that the university is weaker in terms of its science and engineering stems disciplines. And that's kind of interesting because in we ran a series of experiments to look at this and individuals, or the consumers we talked to didn't have to tell us that. They could have said,...

...well, you know, this university, even though it features a Christian cross, is really great at both religion and at science, but that's not what they did. They seem to make an exhibit some sort of tradeoff. Yes, so let's talk about that. This this really difficult branding challenge in terms of I can imagine a dean of computer science listeningness and going like I can't control what level of loadedness someone comes and imagines our Jesuit institution being. So let's talk about what are branding options here? From a communication standpoint, we could try and create a clearer separation between church and stem or. I can imagine this also leaning into it and claiming, yes, we are an institution committed to exploring both God and science. What's on the table? What have you and your team recommended? Yeah, it's I think one thing we definitely tried not to do in the paper was to say, well, this means that you need to back away her a religious emergency, back away, cancel...

...the mission, right, because because it's not just a branding question. Right, it relates to the identity of the history of the university and and those kinds of values, and so of course we're not suggesting that, but we are, I think, suggesting that these decisions should be made with some insight on how consumers, and by consumers I mean perspective students in this case, but could be parents, etc. Might be viewing this kind of communication and just understand that it might have some effects. Might not realize and so the things we're suggesting. First is, you know, really consider the background of your potential target. Right, if you are focused on a segment of the population that really is considering universities because of their religion and theology programs, of course it might make sense to highlight your religious background in your logo and your...

...communication. But if your goal, as many as is a goal for many religiously affiliated universities, to jump on the stem wave and make sure that they get really highly qualified students that are interested in stem field, it might come at a cost if you are over emphasizing your religious backgrounds. You have to think carefully about the audience and how they might interpret these cues or use these cues in your communication. So those are two of them that I'd say the big, big findings. And I'll just add one more thing, which is something that was a little surprising to us in the research. was we expected we might find big differences based on consumers own religious background and affiliation. Right, if you are more religious, maybe you would love seeing across and that it wouldn't have any negative effects on your evaluations of stem programs that universities. But we have some evidence from a research that that are effect seems to be...

...fairly universal. At it might be weaker a bit, but even for those that are that have a strong religious belief, they might still exhibit this religion Science Tradeoff that we found. It's really fascinating that this concept of that think you had on a couple of really important things today. What we learned from the data. You should not instantly cancel out our mission, as well as the fact of realizing, boy, you know, we see the state of that realized as we're losing all these students in the question of bore. We're going to get them anyways because of who we are. So maybe leave us with this, Matt. Next UPS advice. For there's a president listened to us, there's a there's a mark comms team listening to this, there's a a den of computer science and Bio listening to this. What's their next step? For religiously affiliated institutions who want to embrace and keep and maintain their identity but also grow their stem programs, how should they approach that task? Who should they talk to and cross collaborate with it their own institutions? Yeah,...

I think you know, certainly one ideas. You definitely have to segment in your communication and really think about, you know, as best we can. It's not one size fits all where we're always going to be presenting ourselves the same way for everyone, because everyone is coming in looking for something different, and so it makes sense to use some of these principles of customization when we're thinking about targeting. So that that's one. The second point is that it's not always possible right to do that. There might be certain marketing materials where you're not going to be able to customize, you know, your billboard. There might just be one that you can put out there or on your website. It might be hard or recruiting brochure, and so I think it's the big takeaway. As universities just need to make sure that what they're presenting in those forced one size fits all communications are fitting with their strategic objectives, their identity and their positioning and that it isn't kind of an ad hoc decision. It should be strategic and they should realize that there might be some consequences because...

...of this tradeoff that we've been been talking about that they may not like or expect. So those are those are, I think, the main things to think about that. These these really subtle queues. You know, we might not realize that just having the cross presented or using these religious words or going to have these kinds of effects, and so becomes pretty important to consider their impact. And I'll leave it with one final point, which is, I think one thing that's really interesting in our our work is we looked not only at stem and religious disciplines, but in some of our experiments we looked at some other fields including, for example, business and economics. I'm in a business school and we found similar effects on the stem side for business and economics. So if there's a dean of a business school listening, there could be some negative effects in the same way for business and economics programs. So that's something to keep in mind as well. I'm imagining there's a a biology professor...

...listening to this, logging into Google optimize right now trying to figure out how to Ab test different logos sons and with crosses at their institution. Them are already getting weirdly mentally creeped out by that, but I am fascinated to find out what they learned. Matt, appreciate Your Time Today and helping us think through this sensitive issue. What's the best place for listeners to reach out if they have any follow up questions? Yeah, I think email would be great. So my email address is Isaac Am, I ask a ACM at Seattle. You Got EEDU and Gyeah. I would welcome further conversation on this topic. I think there's that there's a lot of interesting follow up that could be done thinking about this interplay between religion and science and how advertising can affect the inferences that consumers may can the decisions, including enrollment decisions, that come from it. Please send your religious symbology Ab test results directly to Matt. Matt,...

...thank you again so much for joining us today. Thank you very much. Or attracting today's new post traditional learners means adopting new enrollment strategies. Helix educations data driven, enterprise wide approach to enrollment growth is uniquely helping colleges and universities thrive in this new education landscape, and Helix has just published the second edition of their enrollment growth playbook with fifty percent brand new content on how institutions can solve today's most pressing enrollment growth challenges, downloaded today for free at Helix Educationcom. Playbook you've been listening to enrollment growth university from Helix Education. To ensure that you never miss an episode, subscribe to the shown itunes or your favorite podcast player. Thank you so much for listening. Until next time.

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