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Board of Visitors hears early results of W&M perception survey

  • William & Mary students welcome the freshman class with high-fives at the 2019 Opening Convocation ceremony.
    A strong community  Prospective students linked William & Mary with academics, a beautiful campus, personalized education and a strong sense of community in the positioning study conducted over the summer.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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At William & Mary, being “small” means having a strong sense of community, being supported intellectually and being able to work closely with brilliant professors. A personalized education.

Off campus? The word without context is seen as negative by many prospective students and others.

That was one of the findings presented to the Board of Visitors last week when it heard preliminary results from a wide-ranging survey about perceptions of the university.

The survey, conducted over the summer by Alexandria, Virginia-based SimpsonScarborough, surveyed prospective and current students, faculty and staff, alumni and non-alumni donors and business influencers to determine understood strengths of the university and continuing misperceptions.

SimpsonScarborough specializes in higher education market research and strategy development. Its client portfolio includes the University of Virginia, University of Richmond, UNC-Chapel Hill and UCLA, among others.

The study was the first such in more than a decade and aligns with William & Mary’s current strategic planning process, helping the community understand W&M’s distinct advantages and opportunities across the higher education landscape. Though the results are preliminary, they are expected to also help inform W&M’s communications.

The first surprise, said SimpsonScarborough CEO Elizabeth Johnson, was the high rate of response, especially among prospective students. More than twice the expected number of prospects responded. The same held for current students and alumni-donors, providing consultants an excellent base for study. About 39 percent of prospects said they were considering William & Mary.

Generally, William & Mary is recognized for the strength of its academic programs.

What surprised Johnson is that, at William & Mary, there is no “faculty dip” in the perception of academic quality. At most schools where SimpsonScarborough works, faculty members tend to rate the overall academic quality of the institution much lower than other survey respondents.

“I can count on one hand the studies we've done where we haven't seen a precipitous faculty dip,” she said. “There's a huge affinity here that we don't see at every institution we work with.”

Unsurprisingly, familiarity with William & Mary recedes the further out the audience is from Virginia, which is an area that Johnson said might warrant future communications efforts.

SimpsonScarborough also zeroed in on some items of particular interest to William & Mary, asking, for example, whether prospects would rather attend a “college” or a “university.” More than half (56%) had no preference, but among those who did, almost eight times as many preferred a university (35% versus 4%).

Most audiences said the best institutions have excellent physical sciences programs. Engineering and business programs also rated highly among all respondents. Those close to the university ranked humanities highly: It was listed second under physical sciences for faculty and staff, alumni and non-alumni donors. Current W&M students ranked it third (after physical sciences and business).

Humanities ranked lower for prospects and didn’t chart for business influencers, sparking some discussion among board members.

“I will just observe, too, that if you listen to actual top business leaders, among the top three things they say they want in graduates are people who can write and express themselves effectively,” said President Katherine A. Rowe. “There’s a really interesting disjunction between the capacities they are seeking and the fields they identify to sort with. That’s something we need to navigate as we tell William & Mary’s story.”

A similar discussion cropped up around the term “small.” After SimpsonScarborough asked respondents to list both positive and negative things they associate with William & Mary, the consultants built word clouds noting the frequency of particular words among both prospects and business influencers.

On the plus side, prospects linked William & Mary first with academics, followed by “beautiful campus,” “community” and “challenging.” Business influencers overwhelmingly noted “history” as their strongest positive association, followed by academics, reputation and liberal arts.

On the minus side, both groups shared “small” as their most-cited response.

“Small, we sense from the interviews we’ve done here, is a cherished William & Mary attribute,” Johnson said. “But we have to recognize that ‘small’ means something different off this campus. It’s a real, true double-edged sword for you.”

Rowe said “small” is William & Mary’s shorthand for “intimate, committed, strong intellectual connections between faculty and students. A caring community. What we need to do is unpack the shorthand and substitute the more precise terminology that actually reflects our community and what we believe in and value.”

The observations were reinforced when SimpsonScarborough asked respondents what they value most in an institution and then backed those responses up against William & Mary attributes. Among the most important attributes were academic rigor, affordability, great STEM programs, a strong sense of community, prestigious reputation and personal interaction with professors.

When asked what would improve their perceptions of or interest in attending W&M, all groups rated being a leader among liberal arts and sciences universities highly. Exhibiting “creative and critical thinking,” which is strongly associated within academe with the liberal arts, also ranked highly. Prospects and business influencers also liked guaranteed internships.

SimpsonScarborough is planning to continue with its secondary analysis of the survey, considering audiences in even finer detail, Johnson said. The consultants are currently scheduling meetings to present the preliminary findings to faculty members, staff and administrators, with the hopes that insider knowledge will help shape the final report into a most useful study for the university.

“When we entered this study, we said that one of the things we need to do is really listen to the data,” said Chief of Staff Jeremy Martin. “We have some very powerful campus narratives, and here we’re seeing conflicting information on that powerful campus narrative. Among the natural reactions is, ‘No, that’s not right.’

“In some ways, we have to suspend those dominant narratives to find out what the data is actually telling us. Because that’s what we need to consider and act upon.”