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August 11

Aspirational Branding: What Makes Your Community College Exceptional


by | Aug 11, 2022 | Branding, Featured

For most traditional students, community college isn’t on their radar. But aspirational branding can help inspire them to see the value and excitement a community college can provide.

Very often, community colleges operate with limited resources.

This can result in prospective students not knowing that there is an affordable and accessible path to higher education within their community.

One organization that’s trying to solve this problem is the Lumina Foundation.

The Lumina Foundation is a private, independent foundation based in Indianapolis, Indiana.

They focus strictly on post-secondary attainment. All they do is help people attain academic achievement beyond high school.

In other words, the Lumina Foundation helps more adults earn credentials post high school, which can include degrees, certificates, or certifications – “anything that can help them in the marketplace with a life of upward mobility.”

Because of their laser focus on higher ed attainment for adults, they are uniquely qualified to speak on aspirational branding as a strategy for marketing community colleges.

In this episode of the Higher Ed Marketer podcast, Shauna Davis and Mary Laphen from the Lumina Foundation, explain the power of aspirational marketing and provide an overview of what the Million Dollar Community College Challenge is.

First, let’s talk about the Million Dollar Community College Challenge.

Million Dollar Community College Challenge

Shauna Davis and Mary Laphen are spearheading a big project called the Million Dollar Community College Challenge, which is a bold initiative.

To begin, Shana explained what this initiative is all about.

The Million Dollar Community College Challenge is a national grant competition that encourages community colleges to tell us what their vision is for their marketing efforts and brand building to encourage adult learners to enroll at their community colleges.

With that vision, they have a chance of winning $1 million to support the implementation of the work.

I’ve always admired their work, but one of the things I really appreciate about Lumina is that they always try to look at very practical and pragmatic approaches to their grant writing.

In the case of the Million Dollar Community College Challenge, they really show how well they understand the importance of marketing and branding to help people see the value of community colleges.

We’ve been looking at the need for more Americans to earn a credential post high school.

When you look at the cost of tuition being far more accessible and affordable as well as the range of training and certifications offered for people, [it’s difficult to understand why adults are underrepresented in community colleges]. But there are lots of different reasons why adults are not as highly representative as we think they should be in America’s community colleges. So we started looking at all these different [reasons].

One of the things we realized very quickly was that marketing and brand building was far too often seen as an [unattainable] luxury for community colleges.

Primarily, this is because historically, they’re underfunded.

Traditional students are coming right out of high school educational environments with support systems to help them move to the post-secondary education level.

By contrast, people going back to community colleges might not enjoy the same awareness of the educational process and those institutional supports on their journey.

This means messaging and branding is critical for success in the post-secondary market.

I’m excited to see how Lumina is leaning into and recognizing this need.

The Benefits of Aspirational Branding

Part of the Million Dollar Community College Challenge was to change the paradigm of how some of the community colleges branded themselves.

Community colleges have depended [traditionally] on two core pieces [in their messaging]. They talk a lot about themselves as being a practical form of higher education and that their tuition costs are lower than most universities.

So while you’ve heard a lot about the functional or practical aspects of attending a community college, you don’t often hear about what’s really exceptional about community college programs, about the experience.

For Lumina, the antidote to this approach is adding elements of aspirational branding to this practicality.

There are more reasons to attend community colleges than the practical ones.

Aspirational branding seeks to identify these other differentiators and highlight them throughout the community college’s messaging.

[Community colleges are] so diverse! They are located in all corners and communities in America, and they serve a wide range of people and programs.

We don’t talk enough about who graduates from community colleges. And we don’t talk enough about their successes.

Sadly, we just don’t talk about the aspirational parts of going to a community college, or why you might choose a community college as your first choice.

This [aspirational branding piece] was important to us. Because when you look at how people are choosing education, it’s largely based on what they think about that education.

Your brand is largely perception. What do people think about you?

We really wanted colleges to tap into understanding better who the community thinks they are, not just who they [as an institution] think they are.

[Then we wanted them to] see if there’s an alignment there, or if there’s work to be done so that the community understands the great things about community colleges, not only what’s practical.

While community colleges do have unique challenges, aspirational branding is an idea that all higher ed marketers should adopt.

Don’t just use the same old messaging strategies.

Dig deep and do some research to see how your target audiences see your education brand.

Consider what makes the education experience unique at your institution.

In other words, what are the differentiators for your brand?

Then, place those experiences and differentiators across your messaging.

If taken seriously, aspirational branding has incredible potential for higher ed marketers of every type of institution.

Discover more when you listen to the podcast!

Like all of our blog post reviews of The Higher Ed Marketer podcasts, there’s so much more to learn in the podcasts themselves.

Listen to our interview with Shauna Davis and Mary Laphen to get even more insights into:

  • What the Million Dollar Community College Challenge is
  • Why it’s important to make higher ed accessible to adult learners
  • Why aspirational branding is needed for community colleges

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Featured image via luminafoundation.org

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