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San Francisco State University
Student Perception Study Report

Executive Summary

Prepared by:
Lipman Hearne, Inc.
December 1999

Important factors in making a college decision
Perceptions of State
Positioning State


Executive Summary

As San Francisco State University positions itself within the California State system. it is interested in learning more about how best to address its current student enrollment opportunities and challenges. In particular, the University seeks insight into the perceptions potential students hold of State and direction in affirming or changing those perceptions.

To that end, San Francisco State University engaged Lipman Hearne to conduct focus groups with key constituencies as follows:

  • Staff members in areas such as admissions, financial aid, student outreach, student affairs and marketing and communications that have direct contact with enrolled and prospective students and those who influence them
  • Currently enrolled students
  • High school seniors in Newark (East Bay) and San Francisco
  • Community college students in Newark (East Bay) and San Francisco

Part Two of this student perception study -- a telephone survey of four categories of students who interrupted their enrollment at State -- is currently underway. Marketing implications and recommendations, derived from both studies, will accompany this Part Two report.


Important factors in making a college decision

Current and prospective students San Francisco State University relate to practical factors, such as access, convenience, and affordability in selecting a college or university. For many students -- whether for reasons of cost, location (close to family), or admissibility ("It was the only place I got in") -- it is apparent that Sate provided them the opportunity to go to college.

Many of these factors were also associated with other California State campuses. Student discussants from suburban Newark and those from San Francisco described Hayward State and San Jose State, respectively, in similar terms to those used for San Francisco State. Clear distinctions were made between California State and University of California institutions, however. "You can do better -- you should consider a UC" was frequently repeated as reactions to students' enrollment in or consideration of State.

In a writing exercise ranking the relative importance of 20 commonly considered college characteristics, each of the groups reported markedly different attributes among the most important. These differences provide direction for "mass customization" marketing efforts that recognize that "one size does not fit all" and that different benefits of attending State need to be communicated to different audiences.

The most important characteristic for each group was different:

  • Enrolled Students reported size of enrollment as number one.
  • Suburban freshmen prospects said that academic reputation was most important.
  • San Francisco freshmen prospects said that campus safety was most important.
  • Suburban transfer students identified quality of specific academic programs as the most important attribute.
  • San Francisco transfer students reported availability of financial aid/scholarships as their most important consideration.

Overall, the five most important college characteristics were:

  • Availability of financial aid/scholarships
  • Location
  • Academic reputation
  • Quality of specific programs
  • Quality of faculty

Differences between the suburban and city groups were particularly notable in the context of location. Nearly all of the San Francisco focus group participants were considering enrollment at State. Only one of the suburban students -- a theater student referred by his high school teacher -- was interested in attending San Francisco State University. These suburban students transferred negative perception of the City of San Francisco to their feelings about the University. They did not see the inherent value in attending school in the city that urban dwellers appreciated.


Perceptions of State

When asked what the "word on the street" was regarding San Francisco State, staff members said people were likely saying something about students not being able to register for the classes they need. Indeed, focus group participants indicated that difficulties in registration were part of the State's reputation. It is important to note that they associated these difficulties with San Jose State and Hayward State, as well.

Specific academic programs -- music, video production, and theater -- were closely associated with San Francisco State University.

Other associations with State depended on whether the participant was a city dweller or a suburbanite. City dwellers appreciated San Francisco State University's convenience and accessibility. The University represented their opportunity to attend college (or complete a degree). Participants in the Newark groups associated San Francisco State University with all they disliked about he City of San Francisco -- crowded, inaccessible, and expensive.


Positioning State

Focus group participants reacted to six words or phrases that staff members suggested as San Francisco State University descriptors.

  • Excellence
  • Low cost, high quality
  • Diverse student population
  • Community involvement
  • Commuter campus
  • Urban University
The description of a university as excellent or high quality was met with skepticism. Participants encouraged institutions to "show not tell" quality by citing alumni achievement, faculty awards, and third-party rankings.

Low cost and high quality did not go together for these students. They did not believe that high quality, implying up-to-date equipment and facilities and a strong faculty, could be achieved at a low cost.

San Francisco State was not associated with either excellence or low cost, high quality. Participants thought of State as a "good school" with strengths in particular academic programs or majors.

The University was clearly seen to have a diverse student population, reflective of San Francisco itself. Enrolled and prospective students appreciated the benefit of diversity, but saw it more as a value-added feature than an enrollment driver. It is important to recognize, as well, that students define diversity in many different ways. One student looked forward to perhaps meeting someone who spoke French; another liked the idea that there would be others on campus of her ethnic background.

The term "community involvement" was meaningless to the focus group participants. They speculated about the community's involvement with the university as athletic supporters. Furthermore, the term "community" did not resonate as an association with San Francisco State. Students reacted with questions such as "Which community?" or "It's a big city -- how can it be a community?"

The very real description of San Francisco State University as a commuter campus has no apparent benefit to students. Several spoke of the difficulty commuting to State and parking challenges. The reputation that on-campus housing is limited at State serves to reinforce the fact that San Francisco State University is a commuter school. Along with that definition comes an absence of social life.

Whether they liked the idea or not, participants agreed that San Francisco State University epitomized an urban university. The concept incorporates the attractive features of accessibility, affordability, opportunity, diversity, and convenience. It ultimately allows for discussion of other features, such as community involvement and quality.



The challenge in identifying a positioning platform for San Francisco State University involves changing constituents' perceptions from thinking about a "university of access" to a "university of choice," from an institution people attend because they can to one they attend because they want to.

The communications directive involves answering the question "What makes a great, urban university in San Francisco?" in a way that conveys benefit to many audiences.