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“The Haves and Have-Nots of Higher Education” Illustrate the Need for Sharing Successes to Build Trust

A picture is taken from above and behind an auditorium filled with people.

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran an opinion piece by Robert Kelchen that I believe all marketing and communications, enrollment management, and advancement leaders should read and share with their presidents and colleagues. The piece holds important context and survival tips for most private colleges, regional universities, and community colleges. Specifically, he focused on ways to build public trust among campuses that aren’t rejective institutions or state flagships, both of which currently are experiencing strong student enrollments. The piece’s title, “The Haves and Have-Nots of Higher Education,” aptly identifies enrollment trends we hear, too.

Erin Hennessy and I are known for stating that communications and communicators often are used as scapegoats in situations that demand leadership solutions. Kelchen points out that communications are part of the problem and the solution for institutions facing enrollment struggles. He recommends institutions invest in building trust. And I know that significant and authentic shifts in awareness and reputation—initial building blocks to build trust— necessitate communications. Kelchen writes, “Invest in public relations and lobbying. A smart investment in telling a college’s story and advocating for its interests can generate a significant return on that spending that can then be used to support academic programs.” In other words, institutions with reputation gaps might have to spend money to make money. My phrasing is crude, and yet the advice is that simple.

I agree with his assessment and recommendation. Some of the best stories my colleagues at TVP Communications and I tell come from campuses that were initially hesitant to talk about their successes. Some leaders worry that their colleagues will view sharing excellence, experiences, and campus evolution as bragging. These placements aren’t about boasting– they are about sharing how institutions are meeting their mission, surviving the nation’s enrollment realities, and hopefully thriving despite demographic shifts. 

Comments we receive on industry placements rarely include references to braggadocious behavior. Instead, administrators, faculty, and staff query how the placements came about because they want their expertise and successes featured. It is important to note that reporters rarely write puff pieces about higher education, and puff pieces focused on open-access institutions are extremely uncommon. Reporters’ goals often include telling the truth, discussing trends, and sharing newness. As public relations professionals, our team aims to have institutions’ work accurately shared with their audiences to build trust. Public trust leads to enrollments, partnerships, and advocates, and all three are necessary for institutions to boost their reputations and buoy enrollments.

For those leaders still uninterested in public relations despite needing to increase enrollment, I have some advice: Being the “best-kept secret in higher education ” isn’t bragworthy. Yet, that is the fallback for those who choose not to support the most basic ways to fulfill their public mission or choose not to participate in publicly articulating their successes. My recommendations for overcoming that secret status are quite simple. Tell your story. Own your excellence. Share faculty and staff expertise. Celebrate students’ successes. And gain comfort and confidence in the difference you make. 

It is all the rage to contemplate how to shift public perceptions of the value of higher education. The first step is to overcome our hesitancy to talk about the difference we make in our communities and for our graduates. And addressing this hesitancy is a leadership AND communications issue.