• Issue #59

Is Public Trust Related to the Size of Your Institution?

Illustration of a very large college campus from overhead. Thousands of students mill about on the grounds outside. The ocean is in the background. Created with generative AI.

Reports about the public’s trust in higher education indicate that our industry faces intense public skepticism and scrutiny. For example, Campus Sonar released a report on trust in higher education after analyzing over 13,000 unique online mentions of higher education from June to December 2023. They found that 38% of mentions were negative and 55% of mentions were neutral. This leaves only 7% for positive mentions. Additionally, they found that 44% of conversations included cautionary advice for prospective students. According to Gallup research, 36% of survey participants in 2023 had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education. This represents a sharp decline in confidence, down from 48% in 2018 and 57% in 2015.

This is not unique to higher education. Gallup also found that public trust in all kinds of institutions is falling. Still, the decline is troubling and it raises questions about how to rebuild trust effectively.

Relevant insights can be found in volume 50, issue 6 of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (due out in June 2024), where researchers attempt to better understand how people assign ethicality to organizations. In Big Is Bad: Stereotypes About Organizational Size, Profit-Seeking, and Corporate Ethicality, authors Andrea Freund, Francis Flynn, and Kieran O’Connor investigate the stereotypes we form about businesses.

Research into stereotypes (opinions formed about subjects based on categorical membership rather than actual characteristics) is extensive. However, the research tends to focus on individuals even in organizational contexts. There is limited research about the stereotypes about organizations themselves.

In Big is Bad, the authors sought to test how relevant a firm’s size is to the judgments people make about it. Their intuitions came from a finding about individuals — that we tend to believe that success is linked with ethical compromises. In fact, many individuals hold the belief that profit comes at the expense of ethics.

The researchers used a range of methods including free-response surveys, Implicit Association Tests, and stimulus sampling, performed power sensitivity analyses, and controlled for potential confounding effects such as perceived impact of the organization. They recruited both adults and students from various demographic categories and tested their results across various industries.

Across five studies, the researchers find a consistent link between the size of an organization and assumed profit-maximizing and unethicality. These findings have significant implications for large companies, as negative stereotypes may lead to consumer boycotts and challenges in maintaining ethical standards internally, potentially perpetuating a cycle of ethical decline.

These findings also have potentially interesting implications for higher education. Are larger institutions more vulnerable to a stereotype of unethicality? Could this suggest that smaller institutions have the greatest potential to impact the trust narrative in higher education? Or do non-profit entities not suffer from the same size bias effects? One might posit they do based on how often we hear that students at large institutions are treated as ‘numbers.’ Other factors such as the age of the institution or its affiliation with certain causes could contribute to the trustworthiness of a given institution.

As higher education institutions and associations take the next steps toward rebuilding public trust in their education and partnerships, we recommend that smaller and medium institutions assume a bigger role in the discussion. Often, it is the largest institutions with long-standing histories that lead conversations about higher education’s role in serving society. But it’s worth pausing to ask, “Are these the institutions the public has the most faith in?”