Official College and University Colors: Student Perception vs. Performance Realities

Haley Kona Omasta


Each year rising numbers of prospective students begin their pursuit of a college degree. As of 2010-2011, the National Center for Education Statistics reports an estimated 4,599 degree granting institutions in the US alone (U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2013). This large pool of options leaves students grappling with how to select an institution, and what qualifiers to use. While commonly used qualifiers such as geographic location, academic ranking, athletic ranking, social environment, and cost of education have been explored in academic literature, anecdotal evidence suggests that other, atypical determinants might also be considered in the selection process.


One such qualifier may lie within the university brand itself. Specifically, collegiate logos, mascots and other symbols convey an image of the institution to potential students. According to Silayoi and Speece (2004, 2007), these symbols contain “design elements, such as color, …used as a way to communicate with consumers and play a substantial role in consumer decision making when shopping time is limited.” All students are “consumers”, “shopping” for an educational institution. In an environment where the decision and application process can take months of commitment, students look to utilize these elements to inform heuristic-driven associations with existing attitudes and beliefs. If a school presents in a manner which incurs or creates a negative association in the minds of potential consumers, they fail to make it past the first stages of relevancy. Astoundingly, colleges and universities in the United States have been taking drastic measures to ensure they do not fall prey to this omission from the relevant choice pool.  The past two decades have seen a  substantial increase in educational institutions in the United States undergoing institutional transformation to attain such preferential associations (Morphew, C.C. , 2000; Owston, 2007); a staggering 785 experiencing name changes, alone between 1992 and 2001 (Owston, 2007).   What if the key to retaining attention of target prospective students is as simple as waving the proper school colors?


This research aims to isolate the effects of color associations on two of traditional qualifying factors, (a) academic performance and (b) athletic performance, and the subsequent beliefs about the success and credibility of the institution overall. Following the work of Ridgway (2011), this study was conducted with a mixed method of secondary and primary research. First, brand congruency is tested by comparing perceptions of official school colors with reputable ranking systems to determine the impact of color on perception of success. A combination of academic and athletic rankings were used in this section. These results are used to develop a consumer survey to determine societal color perception association to a series of generic logos in numerous color combinations. Results and implications are discussed.


Official college/university colors; Perception; Performance; Marketing

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