The Hot New Brand of Higher Education

Donald Trump’s victory made conspicuous conservatism a viable marketing strategy.

Falwell, left, smiles as he shakes hands with Trump, who appears to be mid-sentence.
Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, shakes hands with President Donald Trump. (Rick Wilking / Reuters )

President Donald Trump’s decision to tap the president of Liberty University to lead a task force within the U.S. Department of Education reflects two trends: a backlash against liberal policies at American colleges and universities and a hot new brand in higher education—the conspicuously conservative college.

Liberty, founded in 1971 by the Baptist pastor and conservative political activist Jerry Falwell, boasts of being named the “Most Conservative College in America.” Taking up the conservative mantle of his father, Jerry Falwell Jr. endorsed Trump and, although many conservatives and people associated with the evangelical institution are anti-Trump, promoted a campus environment that discouraged speaking out against the president’s campaign. Falwell even encouraged students to carry weapons in case of a terrorist attack. He will now help identify when the federal government is “overreaching” in its regulation of universities, he told The Chronicle of Higher Education.

This backlash against liberal universities comes at a time of financial pressure for colleges and universities of all sizes. Between 2004 and 2014, four-year, nonprofit colleges closed at a rate of five per year. Worse, a Moody’s study projected the closure rate will triple starting this year. And then there’s the doomsday scenario: The Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen predicts that up to half of the nation’s 4,000 colleges and universities will fail in the next 15 years.

How are university administrators and trustees dealing with this turbulent new reality? For one thing, many are realizing that individual schools can no longer be all things to all people. Consequently, some of them are attempting to market themselves better by playing to their strengths.

In 2017, for some colleges, doing so might very well mean advertising their conservative atmosphere. Some research has shown that a higher percentage of Millennials identify as conservative than both Gen Xers and Boomers did at the same stage in their lives. And with the GOP now in control of the White House, both houses of Congress, 33 governor’s mansions, and 32 state legislatures, the country is seeing a pronounced cultural and political shift to the right. So, according to college-marketing experts, an increasing number of colleges, especially religious ones, may see an untapped but potentially lucrative path to long-term sustainability in being recognized as conservative.

“Small schools must develop and communicate a strong brand,” said Bill Carter of Fuse Marketing, which has worked on branding for colleges, as well as for Starbucks, Doritos, and Mountain Dew. “For institutions that have a history of political conservatism, there has probably never been a better climate for those schools to speak to those beliefs publicly. Not only will it provide or reaffirm their brand, but also there is clearly a marketplace for those institutions to draw from.”

One way to be conspicuously conservative is to forgo federal student loans and grants and publicize that decision so that prospective students are aware that it’s sacrificing what’s likely hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding to uphold its mission. The website of Hillsdale College, a 1,400-student school in Michigan, trumpets its rejection of these funds: “To maintain our independence in every regard, Hillsdale does not accept one penny of state or federal taxpayer funding—even indirectly in the form of student grants and loans.” On the site’s homepage, other signals of the school’s target demographic include a prominent photo of Bible-reading students, a quote about science requiring a belief in God, and an article called “A More American Conservatism.”

Grove City College in Pennsylvania, whose motto is “Because faith and freedom matter,” also turns down federal student loans and grants to avoid entanglement with Department of Education rules. “We value and safeguard our institutional autonomy as a blessing of America’s heritage of freedom,” the college’s website says. Students expecting to entertain opposite-sex guests in their dorm room during their college experience need not apply to Grove City. As the FAQ page notes, “No overnight guests of the opposite sex are permitted at any time.”

These colleges clash with America’s conception of the prototypical university campus as a liberal enclave where young people push boundaries, question long-held beliefs, and engage in progressive activism. Adding to this image is the fact that the professoriate increasingly identifies as liberal. But, according to some marketing experts, the growing struggle to recruit tuition-paying students has led certain colleges to pursue students looking for something different. Conspicuously conservative colleges, therefore, sometimes take highly public, politically conservative stances that might have been seen as too divisive a few years ago.

And these stances expand well beyond religion. For example, in response to the ongoing debate about trigger warnings and safe spaces on college campuses, the president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, Everett Piper, made headlines in 2015 by declaring that his institution “is not a day care.” “Our culture has actually taught our kids to be this self-absorbed and narcissistic!” Piper wrote in an open letter to his campus community. “Any time their feelings are hurt, they are the victims! Anyone who dares challenge them and, thus, makes them ‘feel bad’ about themselves, is a ‘hater,’ a ‘bigot,’ an ‘oppressor,’ and a ‘victimizer.’”

Some observers saw Piper’s letter as a risky statement for a college president to make. After all, Millennials are much more likely than older generations to support government restrictions on speech perceived as offensive to minorities. But there’s a flipside to that today: According to some studies, there is a growing number of young conservatives to cater to. And many families appreciate a strong conservative campus, as demonstrated by the popularity of Fox News’s recurring feature “Campus Craziness," which criticizes the perceived liberal excess of some universities.

Most religious schools aren’t as overtly political as Liberty. Indeed, some prefer to keep a low profile. Others, when they seek media attention at all, seem most interested in being seen as equal to their secular peers. In the early 2000s, observers noticed an effort among evangelical colleges to increase academic rigor and send more students to graduate school. In 2003, The Los Angeles Times published an article with the headline “Evangelical Colleges Make Marks in a Secular World,” which noted that “evangelical colleges and universities are gaining broader acceptance and moving closer to the academic mainstream.” Still others, such as Eastern University outside Philadelphia, have gained reputations as liberal voices in their theologically conservative community. Eastern’s Campolo Center for Ministry is named after its professor emeritus, Tony Campolo, who has called for acceptance of same-sex couples in the church.

But Eastern’s liberal voice makes it an outlier among evangelical colleges. According to branding experts, religious colleges are bolstering their conservative credentials, even if it means engaging in public clashes over culture-war issues.

The famed evangelist Billy Graham cultivated a reputation as an apolitical figure who would gladly pray with leaders of both parties. But last year, his alma mater, Wheaton College in Illinois, initiated proceedings to fire a tenured professor after she posted a message on Facebook saying, “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.” While some saw a school dedicated to its theological purity, others saw discriminatory treatment of the first black female tenured professor at a place where other professors with similar views face no such scrutiny. In other words, such a public statement might have been seen as “safer” coming from a white male professor, but too dangerous coming from a black female.

After a burst of negative publicity, the professor, Larycia Hawkins, resigned from Wheaton and accepted a job at the University of Virginia. UVA’s embrace of Hawkins, which played out in the media, symbolized the conservative/liberal divide of religious vs. public colleges in America’s collective imagination.

By taking on such public battles, conspicuously conservative colleges are merely taking advantage of public and elite colleges' growing reputation as hotbeds of anti-Christian, liberal views and contrasting that image with their own campuses. For example, the evangelical magazine Christianity Today reported, with alarm, on the temporary “de-recognition” of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship by the California State University system, which was concerned that the ministry violated the school’s discrimination policies. And last year, California lawmakers, concerned about LGBT rights, considered a bill that would have jeopardized funding at religious colleges with rules against same-sex relationships.

While public universities are facing criticism from religious-liberty advocates—and while elite private colleges are having heated debates about offensive Halloween costumes—branding experts say other colleges sense a marketing opportunity.

This marketing tactic makes sense, said Stuart Elliott, who wrote about advertising for The New York Times for 23 years. “In the last 10 or 20 years, it's become quite common for brands to take political or social stands, sometimes as part of pro-social marketing or cause marketing, sometimes as part of efforts to reach younger consumers,” he said. “It doesn't surprise me that in the higher education world a similar strategy would be embraced.”

Indeed, in her study of “underdog” brands, Jill Avery, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, found that some brands can benefit from politicizing themselves. “Colleges that are politicizing themselves are going to enable students to self-select into organizations that share their political beliefs,” she said. “If there is a group of prospective college students who feel disenfranchised by the mainstream college-admissions messaging, which, at most universities, leans liberal, then there may be an opportunity to attract them with more conservative messaging.”

But if college campuses become too politically and ideologically segregated, will evangelical groups vanish from public universities? Will “College Democrats” clubs vanish from religious campuses? In short, will college branding cause the nation to become even more politically divided?

It won’t happen, said Abu Noaman, the CEO of Elliance, a digital-marketing agency that has worked on branding for about 100 colleges and universities, including Pepperdine, a private university in Malibu, California, affiliated with the Churches of Christ that’s known for its relatively conservative student body, and Duquesne, a Catholic university in Pittsburgh. “Because modernity, a hunt for full-pay students, and a search for the best global talent have created an irreversible march toward diversity, the emphasis on unique branding of colleges will not preclude diversity of viewpoints on campuses,” he said. “Faculty will be obliged to serve, and help students make sense of, this emergent world.”