Managing Impressions in a Virtual Environment: Is Ethnic Diversity a Self-Presentation Strategy for Colleges and Universities?

Authors

  • Lori Boyer,

    1. Manship School of Mass Communication
      Louisiana State University
    Search for more papers by this author
    • Lori Boyer is an assistant professor in the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. Her research areas are public relations, diversity issues and crisis communication.

      Address: 211 Journalism Building, Manship School of Mass Communication, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA 70803-7202 USA

  • Brigitta R. Brunner,

    1. Department of Communication and Journalism
      Auburn University
    Search for more papers by this author
    • Brigitta R. Brunner is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication and Journalism at Auburn University. Her research interests are public relations and diversity issues.

      Address: 217 Tichenor Hall, Auburn University, AL 36849 USA

  • Tiffany Charles,

    Search for more papers by this author
    • c

      Tiffany Charles graduated from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She is pursuing a career in advertising.

  • Patrice Coleman

    Search for more papers by this author
    • d

      Patrice Coleman graduated from Dillard University in New Orleans, Louisiana. She plans to attend graduate school to study mass communication.


Abstract

This study examines how institutions of higher education use their websites to present diversity to build relationships and recruit prospective students. It involves a content analysis of the homepages of the 163 institutions that U.S. News named to the 2006 list of the country’s best comprehensive colleges and universities. The results showed that institutions in the West published more religious references and fewer photographs of women than institutions in other regions, and references to international programs were most prevalent in the Midwest. Overall, few institutions mention racial or ethnic diversity on their campuses, although visual representations of diversity in photographs are more common than textual references.

Introduction

Globally, colleges and universities are using their websites as key marketing and public relations tools to reach prospective students (Callahan, 2005; Green, 1996; Klein & Niles, 2005; McKay, 1997; Stoner, 2004). As Web use has grown, universities have dedicated more resources to their Web presences (McCollum, 1999). However, little research has addressed how the Web is used in collegiate settings, even though it is a cost-efficient tool to share information with prospective students (Ng, Parette, & Sterrett, 2003). This appears to be a scholarly oversight, given that today’s youth spend more time on the Internet, emailing, instant messaging, and blogging than watching television (Stoner, 2004). In addition, students often use the Internet to explore colleges, because institutional websites provide information on demand.

Many institutions recognize that a clear and well-organized website is an important tactic in an overall recruitment strategy. This student-centered communication strategy allows prospective students to visit an institution’s website repeatedly and interact with representatives from colleges and universities (Stoner, 2004). Using multiple channels and one clear voice also allows institutions to communicate with prospective students in a timely fashion and personal manner. This repetition and interaction help institutions and prospective students bond and form relationships (Marketing institutions and recruiting new students: What works best? 2004).

Institutions of higher education are microcosms of society at large; issues of justice and society values are learned there (Scisney-Matlock & Matlock, 2001). Since students come to universities at a critical time in their development as human beings, diversity is essential. During this time, students define themselves in relation to others, experiment with roles, and begin to make permanent commitments to careers, social groups, and personal relationships (Bowen, Bok, & Burkhart, 1999; Gurin, 1999). Students must be comfortable with their own beliefs and values and be aware of how they can influence their attitudes and behaviors. They must also be prepared for a global and multicultural society. The best place for this to happen is in the university environment (Morey, 2000).

This study is an examination of how colleges and universities present images of diversity to build relationships and recruit prospective students who visit their institutional websites. Specifically, we examine written and visual images of diversity based on racial and ethnic categories, national origin, religious affiliation, physical ability, and references to gender and age. After a review of the literature, the methodology for the content analysis is discussed. The results are then reported, followed by discussion and conclusions.

Literature review

Many scholars have asserted that higher education has a responsibility to the rest of society to lead the way in diversity programs (Hill, 1991; Rosser, 1990) and to be a seeker of truth and knowledge. Higher education should be the “carriers of civilization” and the “engines of change” (Jones, 2000; Rosser, 1990, p. 224), while challenging overt and covert attempts to limit ethnic diversity at institutions of higher learning. Universities should help build a society in which access to positions of leadership and respect is not limited by race or ethnic background (Bowen & Bok, 1998).

Scholars who support the need for diversity contend that it benefits all students. Students learn to accept other cultures, participate in community and civic organizations, and feel a greater commitment to racial understanding and ethnic empathy when they are engaged in a diverse environment (Chang, Witt-Sandis, & Hakuta, 1999). Further, retention rates and students’ overall satisfaction with universities increase when there is a more diverse representation in the student body (Bowen & Bok, 1998; Chang, et al., 1999). Gurin (1999) adds that a strong institutional commitment to diversity is associated with less racial and ethnic tension, and higher grade point averages for all students.

These studies reflect the changing demographics of American educational institutions. The American Council on Education (2003) found that minority enrollment in colleges and universities increased from nearly 2 million in 1980-1981 to 4.3 million in 2000-2001. American Indian, Asian/Pacific Islander, Black, and Hispanic students comprised 29% of all students enrolled in degree-granting institutions in 2002 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2005). Because of this transformation in the composition of the nation’s population, colleges and universities must now consider how to create communities that reflect this new reality. These new academic communities may in turn foster student success in the classroom and subsequently in the workforce.

A brief review of the literature on race and ethnicity in American society in relation to identity may help to contextualize contemporary perspectives on race relations in collegiate communities and the efforts of colleges and universities to communicate to prospective students.

Historical perspective on race and ethnicity

Individual perceptions of race and ethnicity are influenced by social, economic, and political forces. The meanings attributed to racial and ethnic categories, and the behaviors that are deemed appropriate to members of particular racial groups, are defined by social relationships at particular points in time (Omi & Winant, 1986).

Race is a social construction that has historically distinguished racial minorities from people of European immigrant backgrounds (Takaki, 1993). European immigrants established their dominance by forcing many of African descent into slave labor and by relocating Native Americans from their homeland to segregated reservations (Takaki, 1993). From that point forward, European immigrants, and immigrants from other lands, have mostly shared contentious relationships.

Japanese and other Asian immigrants came to the United States to earn better wages than could be found in their homelands by working on plantations in Hawaii. Mexican immigrants also fled economic adversity caused by civil war in their own country in order to improve their lives. Once in America, many became construction workers in urban areas (Takaki, 1993). However, many of the European immigrants now considered America their home, and therefore were protective of its resources from new arrivals. They used power to solidify their roles in the social and racial hierarchy. In these interactions, race and ethnicity combined to construct the social roles of the participants (Takaki, 1993).

Minority students and education

In the past, immigrant and minority students were educated only to the point of becoming a better workforce, not to be assimilated into American society. As a result, many immigrants and minorities were educated in separate facilities.

Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were established prior to 1964 to educate black Americans (Roebuck & Murty, 1993). While HBCUs offered an opportunity for black students to receive a college education, public HBCUs often were established by states to maintain segregation in higher education (Rai & Critzer, 2000). Neither Hispanics nor Native Americans, however, established separate institutions of higher education for several reasons, including the lack of political power. When Mexican-American students began enrolling in colleges in greater numbers by the end of the First World War, only those with higher socioeconomic status were welcomed (Rai & Critzer, 2000). Like students of African American and Hispanic heritage, students of Asian backgrounds often have not been encouraged to enroll in colleges and universities. Some colleges and universities have even created policies in recent years to limit the admission of students from this group (Rai & Critzer, 2000).

Recruiting minority groups

Affirmative Action policies that once were used to boost minority enrollment in colleges and universities have been thrashed since the U.S. court system questioned the legality of decisions that were designed to increase levels of diversity on campus (Clewell & Anderson, 1995). Since then, colleges and universities have been using other tactics to appeal to minority audiences, such as establishing campus visitation days for target groups (Black Issues in Higher Education, 2004), opening admissions offices in cities that have large minority populations, and sponsoring weekend visits to their campuses for attractive candidates (Selingo, 1999).

Sevier (2003) suggests that efforts to recruit minority students should include measures to hire minority faculty members and should be directed by advisory teams that include community leaders, parents, and other minority students. In addition, institutions should provide the financial resources to accomplish this goal, which may include increasing recruitment staff and providing scholarships or other financial resources for these new students.

When minority students are not the focus of recruiting campaigns, many are overlooked. One recent study indicated that private colleges and universities are most likely to target female high school students who are white or of Asian or Pacific Islander backgrounds. In addition, private institutions are most likely to recruit students who attended private high schools and whose family income is $50,000 or higher. Prospective students who live in the New England or Mid-Atlantic states are more attractive to private institutions than those who live in the Midwest, South, West, or Southwestern regions (Don’t Pass Me By, 2005).

There is evidence that some academic institutions aim to use ethnic diversity as a self-presentation tactic. Jacobson (2001) notes that most collegiate publications publish at least one photograph of a group of ethnically diverse students, often standing near an academic building. Other institutions have gone so far in their attempts to create the impression of a diverse campus as to digitally alter photographs to include ethnic minorities. One institution altered a photograph to include an African American student at a football game that he never attended (Jacobson, 2001), while another university superimposed images of an African American student and an Asian student on the faces of two Caucasian students on their website (Jacobson, 2001).

These missteps indicate that some colleges and universities want to present themselves as diverse communities. However, few systematic studies have examined these efforts. Research on collegiate efforts to reach prospective students has focused on traditional communication tools and the messages communicated through them (Durgin, 1998; Esteban & Apel, 1992; Hite & Yearwood, 2001; Klassen, 2000; Murphy & McGarrity, 1978). Murphy and McGarrity (1978) found that academic institutions generally promote program diversity, personal atmosphere, religious affiliation, small size, and geographic location as the key components of their images. The literature does not suggest ethnic diversity as a variable of interest.

Youth and identity

Interactions with individuals from various political, social, and academic environments help young people form personal and ethnic identities. In these settings, individuals learn what others think and expect of them on a personal level and as members of particular racial and ethnic groups. Based on these experiences, individuals create personal and ethnic identities that include personal elements as well as some that are common to other members of the groups with which they identify (Gurin & Epps, 1975).

College-age individuals who identify as members of racial or ethnic majority groups build portions of their identities from social interactions with members of other groups. Individuals who identify as members of an ethnic or racial minority group may be more aware of their identities because they are reinforced by the interactions of others who remind them of their minority status. Although these reminders reinforce the differences in groups, they also have the potential to solidify relationships within minority groups by drawing on shared history and traditions within the group (Gurin & Epps, 1975). Group membership can also provide respect, status, solidarity, and trust. Group members draw on the resources of each other to find employment, housing, and even friends (Perlmutter, 1996).

Colleges and universities often foster the ethnic identification process of minority students who want to create their own communities. For example, some campuses provide financial resources, additional facilities, and support staff for groups such as the Black Student Union or the Indian Students Association (Perlmutter, 1996). Even though campus groups are open to students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, minority students may find particular comfort and support within these communities that help them build stronger ethnic identities. Some argue, however, that such support results in segregated student communities (Hill, 1996).

Web use by college students

College students use the Internet to get health information (Escoffery, Kathleen, Adame, Butler, McCormick, & Mendell, 2005; Hanauer, Dibble, Fortin, & Col, 2004), class notes (Ballard, Stapleton, & Carroll, 2004; Grabe, 2005), and as a communication tool (Ballard, et al., 2004; Hoffman, Novak, & Venkatesh, 2004). Minority students are using the Internet in greater numbers over the last few years (Carnevale, 2000; Ervin & Gilmore, 1999; Jackson, Ervin, Gardner, & Schmitt, 2001), although they have yet to reach the numbers of their majority counterparts (Hoffman, et al., 2004; Jackson, et al., 2001).

In response to the growing interest in and use of the Internet by prospective students, colleges and universities are developing tools to communicate to them directly. Some have created weblogs and tailored emails; others allow students to build personalized Web pages that target their specific interests (Stoner, 2004). Web presences help colleges and universities create institutional identities and build relationships with prospective students.

Theoretical foundation

Impression management is the effort of one individual to influence the impressions that are formed by others (Arkin, 1981; Feldman & Klich, 1991;Gardner, 1992; Gardner & Martinko, 1988; Jellison, 1981; Rosenfeld, Booth-Kewley, Edwards, & Alderton, 1994; Russ, 1991; Schneider, 1981; Tedeschi & Reiss, 1981). Goffman (1959) set the foundation for the study of deliberate and unintentional impressions that individuals send to one another. Goffman termed these performances, which he defined as activities designed to influence others. A single individual or a group of individuals may work together as a team to create a performance for an audience. Goffman made particular note of the power of electronic vehicles of mass communication to influence impressions:

Those who work in the field of radio broadcasting and, especially, television keenly appreciate that the momentary impression they give will have an effect on the view a massive audience takes of them, and it is in this part of the communication industry that great care is taken to give the right impression and great anxiety is felt that the impression given might not be right. (p. 226)

Individuals and organizations often take great care to generate a performance that will maintain an impression that is believable by audiences. This effort may mean that some facts are emphasized while others are de-emphasized. According to Goffman, “there are usually facts which, if attention is drawn to them during the performance, would discredit, disrupt, or make useless the impression that the performance fosters. These facts may be said to provide destructive information.… In other words, a team must be able to keep its secrets and have its secrets kept” (p. 141).

Other researchers have built on Goffman’s work on impression management. Studies based on this theory generally are found in the psychology literature (Gardner & Martinko, 1988; Schlenker, 1980). Martinko (1991), however, suggested that the public relations discipline could contribute to this area of research, in that it focuses on purposeful attempts to influence stakeholders. Individuals and organizations utilize similar strategies to protect the impressions they create for audiences (Allen & Caillouet, 1994).

The Web offers colleges and universities opportunities to create impressions that can be updated continuously, providing prospective students with more resources than traditional communication tools in an efficient and cost-effective manner (Foster, 2003; McKay, 1997), and allowing universities to showcase their interactive capacities to prospective students (Stoner, 2004). Studies of impression management efforts involving audiences who peruse the World Wide Web are relatively new.

Papacharissi (2002) and Schau and Gilly (2003) examined personal home pages and determined that hosting a site allows individuals to present a more multi-mediated self to communicate continuously to the virtual world. Dominick (1999) determined that individuals use their home pages as links to others who share their interests and to foster supportive relationships with others. Other studies have supported findings that individuals use their personal websites to manage the impressions that virtual audiences may form of them (End, 2001; Heeman & Papacharissi, 2003; Seale, 2001).

Impression management via the Web has also been examined in institutional contexts. Niven and Zilber (2001) examined congressional websites and determined that female congressional members place a higher priority on compassion and women’s issues, but found no support for many of the political gender stereotypes prevalent in the media. In a study of academic websites, Miller and Arnold (2001) determined that many women academics use their websites to establish their credentials and entitlement to colleagues.

Presentations of diversity

Research that focuses on the presentation of racial and ethnic diversity on the Web is fairly limited. Thus, this study is also guided by literature that addresses diversity in traditional collegiate media and mainstream channels.

Gay (1988) and Hogben and Waterman (1997) examined psychology textbooks for visual images of minorities. Both studies determined that African Americans, Latino/Latina, and Native Americans were underrepresented compared to their population in the United States. On the other hand, Caucasians and Asians were overrepresented in proportion to their respective population figures.

Studies of the portrayal of ethnic and gender diversity in advertising and journalism are more plentiful. Research has found that magazine advertisements featuring Asians and Hispanics are rare, and most advertisements include multiple racial and ethnic identities in the same image. As in the psychology textbooks, racial minorities were found to be underrepresented as a percentage of the population compared to census figures (Bowen & Schmid, 1997; Ortizano, 1989).

Some news organizations are making efforts to cover minority communities more fairly. Turk, Richstad, Bryson, and Johnson (1989) determined that Hispanic coverage in newspapers in San Antonio, Texas, and Albuquerque, New Mexico was fair and in proportion to their population in the two regions. Lester and Smith (1990) examined photographs featuring African Americans for selected years of Life, Newsweek, and Time magazines from 1937 to 1988 and determined that positive images of African Americans had increased over time. Levy and Bryant (1993) conducted a content analysis of Sports Illustrated and Sport magazines for a 30-year period. The use of African American models in advertising did not match the population figures, but photographs that accompanied stories did use African American models at levels comparable to their census numbers.

Other studies have examined the images of women and ethnic minorities in photographs published in popular media. Fears (1998) examined the facial prominence of African American women in 702 photographs published in Jet, Newsweek, and the New York Times in 10-year increments, beginning in 1965 and ending in 1995. Support was found for the hypothesis that more textual descriptors would describe physical attractiveness of women who appear to be more European than African. There was no support for the hypothesis that there would be more news-type images of African American women who appeared more European than African. In another study of facial prominence, Nigro, Hill, Gelbern, and Clark (1988) examined 600 photographs published in 1970 and 1980 in Time and Newsweek magazines. They found many more pictures of men than women in both magazines and concluded that women were underrepresented in these two magazines. The authors also examined all photographs in 1974 and 1984 in Good Housekeeping and Ms. magazines. In these publications, there were more photographs of women than men, although men generally received greater facial prominence than women. The authors determined that all four publications portrayed men with greater facial prominence than women.

Purpose of this study

This study is designed to investigate whether and to what extent collegiate websites include messages regarding diversity, and how the presentation of those messages is influenced by demographic or geographic characteristics of the school.

The literature reviewed above suggests that minorities are generally underrepresented in media channels, and are more likely to be represented through a visual component of communication rather than a written account of their experiences. Therefore, the first research question is:

RQ1: Does the current level of campus diversity influence textual and visual references to diversity?

In several regions of the country, separate educational facilities have been established to educate minority and majority students. For example, the South has the largest number of HBCUs in the country. Moreover, immigrants have often made new lives for themselves in urban centers. Educational institutions in the North often welcomed minority students when others would not. There also is evidence that students of particular racial and ethnic backgrounds who live in particular Eastern states are more attractive to university recruiters than those from other regions. Therefore, the second research question is:

RQ2: Does geography influence an institution’s textual and visual references to diversity?

Methodology

College and university home pages are the focus of this investigation. Ha and James (1998) suggest that most visitors choose to peruse a website based on first impressions, and therefore the home page is an appropriate unit of analysis. In addition, studying the home page provides a consistent unit of analysis, because sites can range from a few pages to thousands of pages.

Content analysis is a systematic and objective methodology for analyzing manifest communication content (Stacks, 2002). Krippendorf (1980) adds that it is possible to make replicable and valid inferences from data analyzed by the content analysis technique. In addition, content analysis can provide a logical basis for understanding how messages are constructed (Stacks, 2002).

U.S. News publishes an annual list of the country’s best academic institutions across several categories. This study analyzed the home pages of the 163 institutions that are on the 2006 list of best comprehensive colleges and universities. The publication uses four regional distinctions to categorize the institutions. Our sample consists of 35 Northern institutions, 21 from the West, 53 from the South and 54 from the Midwest. U.S. News also publishes a diversity index for most of the institutions in the study. The index, which is based on each institution’s 2004-2005 student body, considers the total proportion of minority students—excluding international students—and the overall mix of groups. The index ranges from zero (minimal campus diversity) to 1.0 (great campus diversity). Scores of institutions in the present sample range from .04 to .58. Eight institutions do not have diversity index scores.

Two trained coders examined each site and noted the presence or absence of references to diversity in words and in pictures. The coders specifically searched for information regarding individuals of African American, Asian, and Hispanic backgrounds. They also coded textual references to international students or experiences, religious affiliation, and non-traditional or older students. Coders examined photographs to determine if at least one individual could be identified as a female, a racial minority, or a person with a visible physical impairment. Following Holsti’s (1969) method, intercoder reliability was calculated and ranged from 70% to 97%.

Results

Most of the 163 institutions refer to some aspect of diversity on their websites. Almost 34% (n = 55) of the sites include a religious reference, 13% (n = 21) include a reference to international students or experiences, 10% (n = 17) refer to programs for non-traditional students, and 2% (n = 4) mention something of particular interest to members of various racial groups.

In general, visual references to diversity are more plentiful than textual references. Approximately 91% (n = 149) of the sites include at least one image of a woman, and 65% (n = 106) include at least one image of a racial or ethnic minority. However, none of the 163 sites in this sample include images of the physically disabled.

The first research question focuses on campus diversity as a factor in written and visual presentations of diversity. This analysis includes the 155 colleges and universities with diversity index scores. In this sample, the scores range from .02 to .58. For the analysis, the institutions were divided into low diversity (.02-.17, n = 78) and high diversity (.18-.58, n = 77) groups. The lower end of the diversity index is comprised of 20 Northern institutions, four from the West, 19 from the South, and 35 from the Midwest. The 77 colleges and universities at the higher end of the diversity index include 14 from the North, 17 from the West, 31 from the South, and 15 from the Midwest.

Only one finding is significant. Colleges and universities with higher diversity index scores are more likely to mention programs for non-traditional students than those with lower scores, χ2(1, N = 155) = 7.11, p=.01. Approximately 17% (n = 13) of the institutions with higher diversity scores mention programs for older students compared to 4% (n = 3) of those with lower diversity scores. There are no significant findings for religious, international, or racial textual references. There also are no significant findings for visual images of women or minorities.

The second research question focuses on geography as a factor in representations of diversity. There are several significant findings. References to religion significantly differ among the regions, χ2(3, N = 163) = 10.74, p=.01. In this study, names of institutions do not count as religious references. For example, institutional names such as Southern Adventist University in Tennessee or Oklahoma Baptist University are not counted as religious references. Instead, only concrete references were coded, such as the link for ministries by Pennsylvania’s Messiah College and the listing of institutional memberships in two religious organizations by John Brown University in Arkansas. Overall, 33.7% of the sample’s home pages include religious references. With regard to regional differences, the West (57.1% n = 12) publishes the most references to religion, followed by the Midwest (4.07%, n = 22), the North (28.6%, n = 10), and the South (20.8%, n = 11).

The second significant finding concerns regional references to international students or international programs, χ2(3, N = 163) = 13.74, p=.00. Again, the Midwest (25.9%, n = 14) publishes the most references, followed by the West (14.3%, n = 3), the North (5.7%, n = 2), and the South (3.8%, n = 2). Examples of textual references to international students and their experiences include the link for international programs that is featured on the home page of Champlain College in Vermont and the inclusion of blogs from students who are studying in Ghana and Finland on Texas Lutheran University’s site.

The third significant finding concerns gender differences in the photographs in the sample. There are significant differences in the presentation of women, χ2(3, N = 163) = 7.91, p=.05. Most of the colleges and universities include at least one image of women on the home page. However, three of the regions present images of women in greater percentages than the fourth. Nearly all of the sites in the Midwest (96.3%, n = 52), South (92.5%, n = 49), and North (91.4%, n = 32) publish images of women compared to 76% of the sites in the West (n = 16). There are no significant regional differences regarding references to non-traditional students or racial diversity, or in the visual presentation of racial and ethnic minorities.

Discussion

The purpose of this study was to determine if a campus’ diversity and its geographical location influence the messages it conveys through its website about diversity. Would a campus with greater numbers of African American, Hispanic, or Asian students tout its multicultural community? Would a college or university in the North appear to be more welcoming to minorities than its counterparts in the South? Is diversity more likely to be presented in written or visual forms? The findings of our analysis suggest that an institution’s location is a better indicator of the availability of diversity messages than the levels of racial and ethnic diversity already on campus. Our findings also suggest that diversity is more often represented in visual than written form.

The two research questions that guided this study address the implementation and implications of written and visual representations of diversity on collegiate home pages. The first question asked about diversity in relation to current levels of diversity in the campus community. Although there is little support in the scholarly literature, conventional wisdom expects campuses with higher levels of diversity to have more pictures of women and minorities, as well as more textual references to diversity, than campuses with lower levels of diversity. An example of such a reference is the statement by Columbia College in South Carolina that describes its student body as numbering 1,500 students from 23 states and 20 countries.

However, the only significant difference found between institutions with greater and lesser diversity was in regard to mentions of opportunities for non-traditional students. This is important information for a population of students that is often ignored by traditional colleges and universities. Non-traditional students add to the diversity of the student body because they have more life and professional experience. Representing them on their websites might also be a way for colleges and universities to entice students who are more mature and who might have more financial assets with which to attend school.

Overall, the institutions with higher diversity index scores provided more references for those searching for information on religious or racial groups. They also present more images of women and minorities. These differences, however, do not reach levels of statistical significance. These findings suggest that institutions may be missing opportunities to communicate with prospective students of varied racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds as well as those with limited physical abilities. As stated above, youth develop their identities based on the interactions they have in social and academic environments. If prospective students do not see images of themselves on an institution’s website, they may not feel invited into the academic community and may choose to attend another institution of higher learning.

The rarity of statements regarding ethnic diversity may have explanations in the self-presentation literature. Self-presentation is generally defined as an individual’s effort to manage information about the self (Schlenker, 1980; Schlenker & Pontari, 2000; Schneider, 1981) to gain immediate or delayed rewards from, or to be liked by, others (Jones & Pittman, 1982). These efforts are undertaken because others can influence an individual’s success (Schlenker & Pontari, 2000). The dilemma, however, is to present an image that others will not find unbelievable (Schlenker, 1980). Feldman and Klich (1991), Orpen (1996), and Young, Gardner, and Gilbert (1994) suggest that some impression management strategies are interpreted as manipulative and disingenuous. For example, an individual may appear to be deceitful if a self-presentation claim can be easily disputed with public information (Schlenker, 1980).

It is possible that some colleges and universities project minimal portrayals of diversity because they do not want to create an image of diversity that stakeholders would question. Some institutions may not want to present messages that may mislead a website visitor about the actual percentages or the racial and ethnic composition of the campus. Extensive communications about a non-existent diverse academic community might ultimate antagonize site visitors rather than cultivate relationships with prospective students. For example, Wood (2003) states that some students were disappointed because the University of California at San Diego misrepresented the diversity of its campus in its viewbooks and other materials. A student who finds many African American, Asian, or Hispanic faces in campus publications might check with campus officials to determine the actual percentage of racial and ethnic minority enrollment. If those figures do not support the representations of campus diversity, some prospective students might question the integrity of all communications from that institution. Perhaps worse yet, students might interpret this false presentation as a lack of commitment to diversity and decide not to enroll at the university. Those who choose to enroll at a university may find that diversity is not what it was represented to be. That is when students self-segregate into racial and ethnic groups (Wood, 2003). Falsely-advertised diversity could therefore become divisive rather than inclusive, and the students could learn that diversity is a lesson in disappointment (Wood, 2003). It may be for this reason that institutions take steps to present ethnic diversity in their communities, but are careful not to make disproportionate claims.

At the same time, based on our findings, it seems that universities use visual diversity as a marketing tool. Of the 163 college and university homepages in the sample, 65% included images of minorities on their websites. The institutions package diversity in images intended to catch a high school student’s attention. For example, Wood (2003) suggests that diversity is sold to white teens as an escape from the narrowness of their high school experiences. Having a diverse college experience may mean that students will learn more about themselves, others, society, and the world.

The second research question asked about regional differences in the representation of diversity on the home pages. Only three differences were significant, involving the representation of women, religion, and international experiences. Campus communities often have more female than male students, and traditionally women appear in photographs for commercial products. Therefore, it is somewhat surprising that differences were found in this area. Institutions in the North, South, and Midwest present images of women on more than 90% of their home pages; however, only about 76% of institutions in the West follow suit. This finding could lead to the conclusion that proportionately fewer images of women appear on these sites, but there are alternative explanations.

For example, institutions in the West may utilize their home pages to present images of the institution’s logo or of the campus without the presence of students. This is the case with the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma. This strategy does not favor any group of students and does not build expectations, false or otherwise, of diversity. Other institutions may use group images that prevent the specific identification of women in the photograph, as is the case with The Master’s College in California. Still other institutions use artists’ renderings instead of campus photographs on their home pages, such as the postcard image that serves as the background for Sierra Nevada College’s website. Again, this may show an aspect of the university without any special attention directed to diversity. A final consideration is that institutions rotate images on their home pages, and a particular cycle may not include images of women. These alternative explanations suggest that a combination of factors may contribute to the differences in the presentation of gender in the West and other regions. However, these few examples do not explain the significant difference that was found in the study’s results. It may be that institutions in the Western U.S. choose to showcase images of landscapes and the environment more often because the natural beauty of their settings differentiates the institutions from those of other regions, and has a broad appeal.

Regional differences in the presentation of religion may be explained by the particular institutions included in this sample. Of the 163 colleges and universities, 154 are private and may be affiliated with religious institutions. Many proclaim their memberships in national church groups, announce religious organizations for students, and otherwise indicate their support for religious programs. Very few of the institutions examined are public or state-funded schools that shy away from mixing church and state issues. In addition, Hispanic, Asian American, and Native American students attend comprehensive colleges and universities in the West and Midwest more than in the North and South. It is possible that the presence of minority students who may have different religious experiences and expressions has influenced how websites are used to communicate to them.

In this sample, institutions in the Midwest publish the most references on their home pages regarding international programs. This finding might have been more expected in regions that are recognized as homes to international populations, such as the North, which includes New York and New Jersey, or in the West, which includes California and Texas. However, this might be the way institutions in the Midwest present their diversity, or encourage their students to broaden their educations by experiencing more of the world. Traditionally, the Midwest lacks ethnic diversity; minority populations are considerably smaller than Caucasian populations. Therefore, presenting photos on their websites that show large numbers of minority students would be suspect. However, by featuring their international students and programs, these institutions can make themselves appear diverse and give their students an opportunity to learn about a global society.

Conclusion

This study was designed to investigate whether and to what extent Web presences established by colleges and universities included textual and visual representations of diversity, and whether the representations of diversity correlate with the demographic and geographic characteristics of the campuses. The findings suggest that colleges and universities—like individuals—actively engage in efforts to manage the impressions that key stakeholders may form (Arkin, 1981; Feldman & Klich, 1991; Gardner, 1992; Gardner & Martinko, 1988; Jellison, 1981; Rosenfeld, et al., 1994; Russ, 1991; Schneider, 1981; Tedeschi & Reiss, 1981) regarding diversity. However, as a whole it seems that colleges and universities are cautious in their depictions of diversity. Although they know that diversity is important and a viable marketing tool, they may recognize the dangers of misrepresenting diversity in order to make their institutions appear more attractive.

This study shares a concern raised by Ha and James (1998) in their examination of business website home pages. Ha and James recognized that visitors may not visit every page in a site, particularly if a site has hundreds of pages. This study examined the self-presentation tactics of colleges and universities on their website home pages. Current students are computer savvy and may choose to explore an institution’s website as a primary source of information. It is possible that the focus of a study—in the present case, references to diversity—are located on other pages in the site. With this in mind, future studies should examine an institution’s entire site to examine how it self-presents to prospective students and other key stakeholder groups, such as parents, alumni, and donors.

In addition, most of the colleges and universities in this sample are private institutions. It is possible that state-mandated rules regarding creating diverse campuses influence the presentation of information that may be particularly directed to women and to people of racial and ethnic minority backgrounds. Examining a matched sample of public and private institutions, or considering the most diverse and the least diverse institutions within each category, could also inform future studies about how academic institutions use their websites to communicate their values regarding diversity to prospective minority and majority virtual audiences.

Campuses are becoming more diverse (American College on Education, 2003; Gomstyn, 2003), but clear messages about diversity are lacking. This paradox is worthy of further examination.

About the Authors

  • Lori Boyer is an assistant professor in the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. Her research areas are public relations, diversity issues and crisis communication.Address: 211 Journalism Building, Manship School of Mass Communication, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA 70803-7202 USA

  • Brigitta R. Brunner is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication and Journalism at Auburn University. Her research interests are public relations and diversity issues.Address: 217 Tichenor Hall, Auburn University, AL 36849 USA

  • c

    Tiffany Charles graduated from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She is pursuing a career in advertising.

  • d

    Patrice Coleman graduated from Dillard University in New Orleans, Louisiana. She plans to attend graduate school to study mass communication.

Ancillary