Eduvation Blog

Evolving College Brands


Good morning, and happy World Rainforest Day!

It’s also apparently Positive Media Day and B Kinder Day, and the day we celebrate Onion Rings and Chocolate Eclairs (but hopefully not together). I’d wait another year to celebrate National Kissing Day, of course, except at home. (ICYMI, see my Pandemic Précis from Monday.)

Yesterday, on National Indigenous Peoples Day, I started my review of pandemic PSE branding trends with a look at about a dozen North American attempts to decolonize institutional and athletic brands. Naturally, that wasn’t the only trend I spotted among scores of examples…

Join me again in my “Brand Chemistry” lab!


Evolving Colleges

With its grading curves, awards, degrees, citation indexes, complex tenure ladders and innumerable national and global ranking systems, higher ed is nothing if not fixated on establishing hierarchies of excellence. And institutions seem inevitably focused on climbing that hierarchy, adding research and degree programs, and often changing their names…


Dropping “Community”

Over the past 2 decades, I’ve seen dozens of colleges rebrand in order to drop the word “community.” (Consider the former Lethbridge Community College, Northwest Community College, and many others.) In just 6 seasons (2009-14), the sitcom Community’s portrayal of a truly dysfunctional Greendale may have permanently spoiled the adjective. A social media campaign launched in 2019, #EndCCStigma, doesn’t seem to have worked – despite its catchy slogan, “We’re not going to change our name; we’re going to change your mind.” US community college enrolments have plummeted throughout the pandemic. Last August, Oakton Community College announced it would become simply “Oakton College” (although the new brand is still being developed). This spring, 5 community colleges merged to become “Minnesota North College.” Motlow State Community College (TN) rebranded as simply “Motlow State.” Colorado’s Pikes Peak Community College is now Pikes Peak State College, because prospective students perceive community colleges as “lesser.” (Even the word “regional” is perceived as a diminutive, it would seem, and is getting dropped by many colleges.)

“Let’s just tell the story of why community colleges are good for students and communities… We don’t need to change our name to do that. We just need to tell our story better.”Jeff DeFranco, president, Lake Tahoe Community College

Dropping “College”

In the UK and US, the noun “college” carries plenty of ambiguity, and is used to encompass the whole spectrum of PSE institutions. Most Canadians, though, take “college” to mean a 2-year community college, and the word carries some stigma, particularly in Ontario where high school students are streamed into applied maths if university-level maths prove too challenging. Canadian affiliated and federated colleges have been careful to brand themselves as universities or “university colleges,” or to emphasize their location within a university (like King’s at Western, for example). Many colleges with polytechnic aspirations have stopped using the noun in their brands (such as Fanshawe, Georgian, LaCité, Langara, Humber, Mohawk, Sheridan, etc). Many others have switched to acronyms to downplay the word (such as UCFV, UCN, VCC, NBCC, NSCC, RDC, GPRC, RRC, CNC…).  The trend shows up south of the border, too: this February, Augusta Technical College (GA) rebranded as “Augusta Tech.”

“The communities get the sense that this is a coming of age. There is a sense of community pride.”Skip Bassford, then-president, then-UCFV

Levelling Up

Of course, many colleges are evolving in more than just name, adding 4-year undergraduate degrees and even postgraduate programs – and provincial premiers seem happy to elevate community colleges to university college, polytechnic, or university status (so long as they don’t have to increase institutional budgets). I saw that first-hand in BC, when premier Gordon Campbell surprised 5 colleges within a single week in April 2008, bestowing university status and new names on Capilano, Emily Carr, Kwantlen, VIU and UFV. (Although it unravelled an elegant, longstanding system of regional universities, it helped keep the Liberals in power for another decade.) Not to be outdone, Alberta premier Ed Stelmach gave Mount Royal and MacEwan university status in Sept 2009, finally aligning their names with the degree-level programming they had long offered. (See my 2015 Ten with Ken on New University Brands.) In Feb 2019, Alberta College of Art and Design (ACAD) officially became Alberta University of the Arts, too (although it released its first brand video last November.) And although the newly-christened Yukon University released its new brand identity in May 2020, it was hardly a pandemic development either: the territorial government announced the new name way back in Nov 2015, and passed the enabling legislation in Nov 2019.

“The most significant benefit of the new name will be experienced by our students, whether on a résumé or a graduate school application, because of the global recognition of what the name ‘university’ means.”Paul Byrne, then-president, MacEwan U



At the same time as colleges and institutes have been advancing into degree territory, they have been embracing what I have called the “microcredential moment” fuelled by the pandemic recession and volatile unemployment. Governments from New England to New Zealand have been funding and promoting microcredentials as the inexpensive cure-all for displaced workers, and thousands have been launched across Canada. Most university microcredentials remain non-credit continuing ed courses by another name, but colleges are embracing the opportunity to craft new competency-based offerings in close collaboration with employers. And many are establishing microcredential sub-brands to market them, like SAITMicro, Sask Polytech Surge, St Lawrence College’s SLC+, and Bow Valley College’s Pivot-Ed. (Check out the brand videos for SLC+, Pivot-Ed, and Surge, “powered by Sask Polytech.”)

New Polytechnics

20 years ago, Ryerson dropped “Polytechnic” from its name, and Canada had no others – although Polytechnics Canada was founded in 2003 by 8 institutions that wanted to reinvigorate the label. (Some, like NAIT and SAIT, had their province’s blessing, while the 5 from Ontario were ultimately told not to call themselves polytechnics.) Thereafter, Kwantlen was surprised to become Canada’s only “polytechnic university” in 2008. SIAST became Saskatchewan Polytechnic in 2014. Things were polytechnically quiet in CdnPSE until the pandemic, which seems to have sparked a flurry of repositioning. In May 2021, Alberta granted Grande Prairie Regional College new polytechnic status – although its new name, Northwestern Polytechnic, wouldn’t be finalized until December. (NWP launched its “Brand Story” vid this March.) In June 2021, Alberta approved polytechnic status for Red Deer College, which unveiled its new identity as Red Deer Polytechnic last October. Just 4 days later and 2 provinces east, Manitoba’s Red River College rebranded as RRC Polytech, to “stay in front of what’s ahead” by offering certificate, diploma, and degree programs to meet emerging industry needs.

“It is honestly a whole new ballgame… We believe we are going to build off that and be the most entrepreneurial college in Canada. Today is just the beginning of that.”Justin Kohlman, president, Northwestern Polytechnic

“The new name recognizes RRC Polytech’s evolution into a unique post-secondary institution that blends deep, knowledge-based learning with applied, hands-on experience, and highlights the important role our graduates play in growing Manitoba’s economy as our province recovers from the pandemic and looks to the future.”RRC Polytech brand announcement

After almost 2 decades in which Canada had no more than 2 “polytechnics” in name, the past year has added 3 more! And last October, in the midst of the announcements, Polytechnics Canada launched a national campaign to raise public awareness of the sector: “Purpose Applied.” The question now is, how long until all the remaining “colleges” want to join the polytechnic party?

Brand Chemistry Episodes

Marketing summaries and critique are pretty visual, and lend themselves better to slide presentations or video anthologies than written text. I’m hoping to produce video versions of this week’s Insiders, but it may take me a while to sort out my new studio. Meanwhile, if you want to see some fast-paced anthologies of higher ed rebrands and campaigns, check out the 23 pre-pandemic Brand Chemistry™ episodes of Ten with Ken on the Eduvation website, or on YouTube, iTunes, etc…

World’s Best Rebrands counts down the 10 best PSE identities launched in 2015-17, from hundreds worldwide.


Branding Misfires looks at 12 PSE rebrands that caused outrage and opposition among faculty, students, and alumni.



One Word Wonders looks at 10 PSE brands focused on “owning a word” in the higher ed marketplace.


Last week I shared some data on Grad School enrolments during the pandemic, and asked readers what caused the sudden drop in Fall 2020…

Grad Drought in 2020

The most reasonable explanation I’ve heard is that the overall decline in 2020 grad enrolments reported by Universities Canada was driven by international students, who shared domestic students’ unease with the prospect of a digital pivot but were even more concerned that online study might not count toward their post-graduate work permit. By 2021, the ambiguity and confusion appear to have been largely resolved, and numbers rebounded. As one reader put it, “the second year of the pandemic made folks take the step they needed… I heard time and time again that the driving factor was that prospective students had enough time to reflect and realize that this was the moment to embark on a graduate program. As you pointed out, online delivery was the determining factor for most. ‘It’s now or never’ was the saying back then.” Another reader at a small university (with a very high proportion of international graduate students) told me that they saw a 60% drop in new grad students for Fall 2020 – a brief dip that was followed by a resurgence to 38% more than pre-COVID numbers in Fall 2021.

So, it may well be that deferrals of grad study by international applicants explain the anomalous pattern we saw in 2020. (Unless anybody has other answers?)



I previously shared Polytechnics Canada’s “Education is Different Here” vid from Sept 2021, but I’ve been waiting for a chance to share this second, even more powerful one…

Find Your Purpose

Polytechnics Canada takes on a reflective tone in this 1:20 min widescreen spot. “You’re here for a reason, whether you know it yet or not.” So, “how do you turn who you’re supposed to be, into who you are?” Naturally, you enroll at a polytechnic, “where learning isn’t bogged down in theory, but driven by reality” and “titans of industry can double as mentors.” The spot nicely builds on the tagline, “Purpose, Applied.”  YouTube

As always, thanks for reading!

I’ll try to get out one more brand-related issue this week, although I’m also preparing for the CMO Roundtable session tomorrow (so, we’ll see).

Until next time: stay safe and be well!


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