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

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Is there an inherent perception conflict between being a faith-based university and being a world class STEM institution?

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.

Does Religious Language Alter Students’ Perceptions?

Seattle U is a Jesuit Catholic university in the Seattle area. A professor of marketing at Seattle U, Mathew collaborated with his colleague Carl Obermiller and with Rebecca Wang of Lehigh University to co-author a paper in the Journal of Advertising. 

The genesis for this project came from looking at different religious universities’ websites. Almost 900 sectarian universities in the U.S. are associated with a religious group. Many of their websites use a lot of religious language on the homepage or prominently feature religious icons such as a Christian cross in the logo. 

Other religious universities, however, do not  employ as much religious language or imagery. 

Does this variation matter?

What the researchers discovered

The researchers found that consumers do make inferences about those religious universities that advertise their religious backgrounds the most. Some of these inferences are positive. For example, they might believe the university is stronger in religion-related disciplines.

Evidence suggests, however, that these same consumers inferred that the most religious universities were weaker in the STEM disciplines.

The consumers seemed to believe they were making a sort of trade off.

Do We Need to Separate Church and STEM? 

From the university’s perspective, this creates a difficult branding challenge. 

Should you try to create a clear separation between church and STEM? Claim that you’re an institution committed to exploring both God and science? 

Really — should you cancel your mission?

Should you cancel your mission?

“It’s not just a branding question,” Mathew said. “It relates to the identity and history of the university and its values.”

Obviously, the researchers don’t suggest backing away from your identity, history, or values. They do, however, believe decisions should be made with insight on how prospective students and parents view your communication. 

Religious language and imagery might have effects you don’t realize.

What should you do?

  1. Consider your potential students’ background.  If you are focused on a population that is considering universities because of their religion or theology programs, it might make sense to highlight your religious background more in those communications. But if your goal is to enroll highly qualified students interested in STEM fields, make sure your language emphasizes these strengths.
  2. Don’t assume a prospective students’ religious background or affiliation will affect their other inferences about your school. The researchers expected to find that more religious consumers would have less negative evaluations of STEM programs at religious universities. In fact, the effect was nearly universal.

What researchers learned from the data

Don’t cancel your mission. You should however realize that the language and imagery you use does have impact. The question now is, how will you get students to come to your institution because of who you are?

Next Steps to Maintain Identity While Growing Your STEM Programs

Segment your communication. Everything you publish doesn’t have to be a one-size-fits-all approach. 

Every student is not coming for the same reason; they’re all looking for something a little different. It makes sense to use the principles of customization when thinking about targeting. 

What if it’s not possible to segment your marketing? 

You can’t customize every marketing piece you publish after all. In these cases, make sure your message fits your strategic objectives, identity, and positioning. 

Realize there might be unwelcome consequences because of this perceived trade-off. 

One final point, this perception may affect more than STEM programs. Business and economics programs may see similar impacts. Keep that in mind as well.


This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. Mathew Isaac of Seattle University. To hear this episode and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.