How College Athletics Impacts University Trust
Private universities with a presence in Power Five conferences have 33% higher net trust compared to public universities with no Power Five presence (31.55 percentage points vs 23.65 points).
Understanding this difference provides a view on the role of college athletics in shaping public perceptions of universities.
In times of headwinds for higher education, university leaders need to make concerted efforts to measure drivers of trust to inform strategies.
Texas Christian University suffered a historic blowout loss to the University of Georgia in this year’s college football national championship. But, ironically, the Horned Frogs may well have walked away as winners from a reputational perspective.
Morning Consult research confirms that universities with elite athletics programs have better reputations among the public, and especially so for private institutions. Compared to the baseline net trust surveyed across all 135 universities (25.74 percentage points), universities in the Power Five conferences are more trusted than those with no such presence (26.94 points vs. 24.98 points).
Private universities command higher trust than public universities (26.50 vs 24.86). As such, private universities in the Power Five conferences have 33% higher net trust compared to public universities with no Power Five presence (31.55 percentage points vs 23.65 points).
That’s according to data drawn from Morning Consult’s 2022 Most Trusted Universities survey of 11,050 U.S. adults. Net trust is measured by the share of respondents who said they trust each institution to do the right thing “a lot” or “some” minus the share who said “not much” or “not at all.”
Given the diversity of the higher education landscape and stakeholder attitudes and perceptions, university reputation is not a monolithic number and varies by the characteristics of respondents. One key characteristic is the individual’s political identity. This research snapshot takes a deeper dive into how trust varies at the intersection of the type of university, its presence in a Power Five conference and the respondent’s political identity.
Many of the Most Trusted Universities are buoyed by their affiliations with Power Five conferences
Many universities that didn’t make our 2022 Most Trusted Universities list appear in this analysis that examines private vs. public and Power Five vs. non-Power Five institutions. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is the most trusted public university in a Power Five conference, for example, but its net trust score of 31.82 points means it didn’t make the top 10 in our overall ranking.
Johns Hopkins University, the most trusted institution at 47.63 points, bucks the trend: While it’s a private university, it has no strong presence in elite college athletics. Cornell University and MIT also have higher trust scores than Stanford University, even though the first two have no Power Five presence while the California institution does.
Republicans trust Power Five public schools more than non-Power Five, but Democrats see only marginal differences
Adding in a layer of political identity disrupts the athletics bump, at least among Democrats’ views of public universities.
When looking just at public universities, which are slightly less trusted overall compared to private ones, we see that Democrats have comparable net trust in non-Power Five universities and those with college athletes taking the field. Sixty-three universities were surveyed in our research.
We’re also not seeing a huge divide in average net trust for Power Five vs. non-Power Five public universities (25.56 points vs. 23.65 points).
To be sure, a public, Power Five university does have the highest net trust among Democrats: The University of California, Berkeley has an impressive 54.31 points in net trust. Among Republicans, however, the school has a negative net trust score (-5.23), resulting in net trust among all adults of 24.04 — a proof point of how much political divisiveness can affect trust in higher education.
The Power Five bump is more prominent among Republicans for private universities
Among the 72 private universities that were part of our analysis, the importance of Power Five conferences is even more pronounced. The difference in net trust between Power Five and non-Power Five private institutions is 6.05 points — more than three times the gap for public universities (1.91 points).
Johns Hopkins University, again, is an exception that fared well among Republicans and Democrats alike despite having minor affiliation with a Power Five conference in its lacrosse team. This is likely due to its work on the COVID-19 dashboard during the early stages of the pandemic, which earned trust among diverse stakeholders.
It’s also noteworthy that Republicans seem more swayed by a so-called Power Five bump. Among Democrats, the net trust bump is nonexistent for public schools and marginal for private schools (11%). Among Republicans, it’s 58% for public universities and 72% for private universities. That’s especially important given that Republicans trust higher education institutions at a lower rate than Democrats, regardless of the type of university or its presence in the Power Five.
While university leaders cannot change the public or private control of their institution, they can influence its investments and priorities. To adapt to a future shaped by the “enrollment cliff” of a declining high school population and pressing questions about the value of higher education, university leaders and policymakers need to measure what matters so that institutions’ investments can match their priorities. This research shows that measuring trust, and how it varies among diverse stakeholders over time, is essential in bridging the trust gap.
This memo as been updated to clarify that while Johns Hopkins University has no Power Five college football or basketball affiliation, it is affiliated via its lacrosse team.
Rahul Choudaha is the managing director of higher education at Morning Consult, where he conducts research, authors analyst notes and advises leaders in higher education on how to apply data-driven insights to make better business decisions. Rahul has given over 200 presentations at professional conferences and has been quoted over 300 times in global media. He holds a doctorate in higher education from the University of Denver.
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