Ask people who attend or work at Cleveland State University to describe the institution in one word and you’ll probably get all kinds of responses. 

But when people outside of the campus community were asked to do just that last year, some of the words most commonly selected — think “average” and “local” – painted a less-than-rosy picture of how the university is perceived. 

Those are just some of the takeaways from a “reputation strategy” issued by the higher education marketing and enrollment strategy firm Carnegie. It’s one part of a recent $1.4 million push that culminated in the “We are CSU” rebranding campaign introduced earlier this year. 

[READ MORE: Inside Cleveland State University’s $1.4 million rebranding effort]

The report, received recently by Signal Cleveland through a public records request, contains all kinds of information. Lots of the 132-page document reads like a word salad full of consultant jargon. Big chunks are redacted, too. Signal’s challenged some of those redactions and is still awaiting a response from the university.  

Yet its findings are important as the public institution looks to shake its enrollment struggles. The university’s headcount came in at 14,579 students last fall. That’s down roughly 12%  since the same time in 2017. 

CSU’s success is important for the city of Cleveland in many ways, including its economic future and that of its residents. The university reports that about 80% of its graduates stay in the area.  

Read on for highlights from the report. 

How they got here

This document was issued in May 2022, just a few weeks after Laura Bloomberg took over as president. The research was conducted earlier that year under the reign of Bloomberg’s predecessor, Harlan Sands. 

Carnegie said having a better understanding of CSU’s identity and opportunities would give leaders a chance to “deliver consistent, personified, and targeted messaging,” which in turn could boost its engagement and people’s feelings about the university. 

There are a lot of moving parts to Carnegie’s findings. About 450 internal stakeholders completed workshops to “evaluate institutional personality, key traits, faults, and core messaging.” 

External perception research was conducted via more than 1,500 completed online surveys distributed to people in Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Toledo and Pittsburgh. 

Carnegie wrote that some of the goals of this portion are to gauge how well-known the university is in those areas as well as the “biases” that CSU’s leaders may need to overcome. 

More than a third of respondents were prospective students. Members of the general public as well as parents and guardians of prospective students were asked, too. The smallest pool of respondents  – 16% –  fell into a category called educational influencers. It included people such as guidance counselors, teachers, donors/volunteers to higher education causes, and community/local politicians, per the report. 

And though nearly half of Cleveland’s residents are Black, 71% of total respondents were white.  

Finding the fault lines

Current community members’ thoughts kicked off the report. They shared their  opinions on the university’s faults, both perceived and actual.

“The faults exercise provides integral data that can serve as a counterpoint to an institution’s positive traits and provide a more complete understanding of an institution’s personality,” Carnegie wrote. 

The top actual faults clocked in as “complicated,” “slow” and “ordinary.” Perceived faults were similar. “Ordinary” took the top spot, followed by “commonplace” and “forgettable.” 

Cleveland State’s challengers 

Carnegie identified nine institutions across the state as members of the university’s “competitor set.” 

On that list: Baldwin Wallace University, Bowling Green State University, Cuyahoga Community College, Kent State University, Ohio State University, University of Akron, University of Toledo, University of Cincinnati, and Youngstown State University. 

All except Baldwin Wallace are public universities like CSU.  

Weighing the competition

Part of the company’s analysis included looking at each of those competitors’ “public-facing and enrollment-focused marketing products,” like websites and social media accounts. 

“The overall narrative strategy and storytelling tactics of both CSU and its competition were dissected to understand who is saying what and who is doing it best,” Carnegie wrote. 

Though Cleveland State’s detailed findings were redacted from the document Signal Cleveland received, its competitors’ rankings on its proprietary scoring system were not. Cuyahoga Community College, for example, received a “weak” score. 

“This fact-driven approach to content and lack of storytelling design elements personify the college as a place that does not understand its strengths and what it uniquely offers students,” they wrote about Tri-C.  

The University of Cincinnati scored the best out of the bunch, despite still earning only what was deemed an “average” score on Carnegie’s scale. The firm gave high marks for the narrative shared by the institution. UC’s social feeds, though, were “dominated” by posts about its athletic teams. That left the rest of the university’s story undefined, they added. 

The University of Akron earned an average score, too. The firm liked UA’s “well-designed” videos and social media posts but found that its messaging was often paired with generic images. 

The Northeast Ohio university with the highest enrollment – that’d be Kent State – received a score of “weak.” The firm said KSU’s messaging has a “confused personality.” 

Amy Morona covers higher education for Signal Cleveland, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland, in partnership with Open Campus.