Leadership Strategies for Rebuilding Trust on Campus: Part 2

In Campus Sonar’s latest industry trends report on “Rebuilding Trust in Higher Ed,” we explored the gap between trust and value to understand what audiences discuss about a college degree using social intelligence. We focused on how audiences explain the purpose of higher ed, the value of a degree based on current outcomes, and how those outcomes could evolve if trust and values aligned. 

Now, it’s time to apply those insights on campus with strategies to help you begin rebuilding trust with prospective and current students, alumni, and the public at large. Make sure you read the other two recommendations we shared.

Prioritize Preparation

Campuses are home to hard working, caring employees who are going above and beyond to support their students through academic and career advising, retention efforts, health and wellness, and other aspects of campus life. But this work doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and these individuals are burned out

The COVID-19 pandemic has had lasting effects on these already overworked, understaffed, and underpaid teams and individuals, many of whom are concerned about the future of their campuses (and the stability of their jobs) due to the aforementioned financial woes. Campus leaders need to thoroughly assess, streamline, and reprioritize these efforts to ensure all students are aware of and have access to support services and preparation resources and that the teams doing the work can collaborate efficiently and effectively.  

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Take Action

  • Overcome bureaucracy: Assess the support mechanisms in place to guide students, from academic advising to career services. Your faculty and staff working in these areas are on the frontlines to student support and connection. How is your campus preparing students for graduation and beyond? How are you empowering these teams to effectively support students?  
  • Elevate student services: Clearly and regularly communicate about critical student services like academic and career advising, health and wellness, and financial aid. Simplify students’ access points and ensure support is integrated—help them find the connections and people they need. Identify ways to provide customized reassurance and support while highlighting tangible examples of care in your messaging.
  • Invest in career services and other career readiness resources, especially if liberal arts and social sciences are among your core programs. 
    • Focus on internship opportunities and job placement pipelines to support student success. Forge a culture of career preparation built into your curriculum, coursework, academic advising conversations, and student life experiences. 
    • Establish mentorship relationships across students, faculty, and alumni to create opportunities early on for professional networking, connections, and guidance in and out of the classroom.   

Listen to and Serve Your Audiences

Trust depends on context and is not experienced equitably by all higher ed audiences. For example, a college graduate described growing up poor and being steered toward college with a full ride, yet being discouraged by the lack of job prospects. A Hispanic master’s degree recipient called college a “scam,” noting that their job prospects even after grad school weren’t worth it due to the accumulated debt. A college graduate noted they earned significantly more than most people they knew right out of college, declaring that a degree is “absolutely necessary as a Black person” for career prospects. A first-generation college student from an immigrant family reflected on how college changed their life through the opportunities presented and connections made. Meanwhile, in a study by Indiana University, students from underrepresented communities, particularly Black students and students with a disability, consistently report lower levels of trust. 

There’s a gap between the value campuses can provide and whether students from marginalized and underrepresented communities trust higher ed institutions. An Indiana University study notes: “If you do not trust the people around you or do not believe your institution well serves your interests, you are undoubtedly less likely to have a positive experience that will sustain you to graduation. Consequently, attention to and elimination of these trust gaps may be a pathway to improving some of the most challenging and intractable problems facing higher education today.”

Shifting demographics in the U.S. combined with higher ed's intended purpose of changing individuals’ lives for the better present opportunities for campuses to realign their operations, offerings, and resources with a refocus on their audience needs in mind.

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Take Action

  • Put students first: Demystify college with a willingness to listen to your students (prospective and current!) and their families—who care deeply about these experiences and decisions, too. With a lens of empathy, curiosity, and care, take time to genuinely understand their perspectives—and how they vary—no two students’ experiences and pathways are identical, so their messaging and resources should align with the variance to meet them where they are. Be willing to let go of assumptions and make adjustments to the status quo of campus offerings to align with their questions, concerns, and needs.
  • Evaluate the enrollment cycle: Traditionally in enrollment cycles, campuses often place most of their resources at the top of the funnel to build their inquiry pool and then again with admits to maximize yield. What about all the prospective students in between those stages? How are you reaching them and aligning support and value early on in their college exploration process? Help prospective students consider what factors go into their college-going decisions and what aligns best with your campus offerings to build trust with them and their opinion leaders.
  • Empower your DEIB experts: They are change-makers and can directly influence decisions. That decision-making encompasses the policies, programs, processes, and anything else happening on your campus. 
  • Engage in community outreach. Identify ways to apply the teaching, learning, and research already happening on campus can serve the region around your campus. Emphasize “doing” more than “telling.” 
  • Drive change through proactive, intentional strategy—rather than letting it drive you. Informed by your audience-based data, be willing to make decisions and lead your teams in taking actions that differ from the norm in favor of shifting audience needs. 

Your Next Steps

  • Download the Rebuilding Trust in Higher Ed report for comprehensive insights into the general public’s perception of higher ed. 
  • Watch our roundtable discussion with industry experts on growing brand equity on campus. 
  • Explore ways to work with us to apply these insights and strategies at your campus.