Eduvation Blog

Million-Dollar College Brands?

Good morning, and TGIF!  

Today is a day to celebrate aviation and orangutans, soft ice cream and potatoes (hopefully not together), hair bows and men’s grooming. (For a Friday, today sure has to do a lot of heavy lifting!)

More to my purpose, though, today is also World Photography Day and World Humanitarian Day – so how better to devote today’s issue, than to reviewing some award-winning examples of cinematography that aims to improve PSE access?

Lumina’s Challenge

It all starts with a national community college branding contest…

CCs in Need

The Lumina Foundation, based in Indianapolis, is a $1.4B fund committed to college access, equity, and student success. After 3 gruelling years for community colleges, and a 13% enrolment decline (which I’ve written about before), Lumina launched “The Million-Dollar Community College Challenge” in Feb 2022. According to strategy director Shauna Davis, the idea arose from Lumina’s research into CC brand perceptions. Unlike 4-year universities, she says, CCs haven’t historically had the resources to launch sophisticated brand building and marketing – so the $1MCCC would provide funds to some selected institutions, and provide information and resources to the whole sector.

“There’s been lots of work being done in this ecosystem around student success initiative, policy and removal of barriers to education. But one of the areas that wasn’t getting enough attention is how community colleges are communicating both externally and internally. How they are positioning their brands and marketing efforts to gain the attention of adults who have competing life demands.”Shauna Davis, director for CC participation, Lumina Foundation

$1.9M in Prizes

Actually, it was a $1.9M contest, offering competing colleges a grand prize of $1M and 9 runner-up awards of $100K each. The grants were to “transform their brand-building and marketing efforts to be more inclusive of today’s students,” which could include “the website… parking lot… classroom… every touchpoint.” (The winners would also receive “technical assistance to develop actionable brand building and marketing strategies.”)

Picking the Top Ten

“Hundreds” of colleges applied and in late April, 10 finalists were selected and given until mid-June to prepare video narratives (with some technical advice). The top award would go to the college that “best articulates a compelling vision for its brand and details a strategic way that grant funds will be used to transform marketing efforts to support the enrollment and retention of students.”

Notable Finalists

Many of the $1MCCC finalist videos are unremarkable, but a few are definitely worth singling out…

Level Up!

College of Eastern Idaho produced a 2-min “Twitch stream” of a supposed video game, “Career Crush… where students level up with career value in every class.” We watch as player “Epic Earner” tries to balance family, work and school, and “Medic Mom” faces an unexpected “boss battle” when her child is admitted to hospital. It’s a memorable approach that might appeal to 20-something gamers, although the rapidfire delivery of this particular vid risks reducing the players to caricatures.  YouTube

Be Transformed

County College of Morris (NJ) produced a cute, wordless 2-min video depicting a father returning home, and allowing himself to be coaxed into playing dress-up with his 2 children. They start by dressing him as a princess at a tea party, then as a construction worker, a graduate, and finally a businessman. “Aspire to be transformed at CCM!” It’s a touching vid with good production values, and clearly targeted at working parents – subliminally urging them to do it for the kids.  YouTube

Removing Obstacles

Houston Community College (TX) ran with a visual metaphor: a literal wall of boxes, representing all the emotional and financial barriers holding prospective students back. (Guilt, Doubt, Fear, Gas Prices, High Rent, No Wifi, Childcare, Transportation, etc.) “People are weighed down by a lot these days… HCC Online removes any obstacles, one by one.” Then the HCC-branded helpers bring in a series of labelled solutions, from study spaces and free laptops to food pantry and emergency aid. It was an ambitious effort, although it probably needed that $100K budget to do it justice.  YouTube

Every Day There’s a War

Madison Area Technical College (WI) produced what is probably the most polished, artistic video of the bunch, “in collaboration with local artists, students, graduates and employees.” A series of engaging, passionate Black men empathize with each other and the viewer, describing the challenges they face: “Every day there’s a war.” They share a script written as rhyming verse, delivered almost like beat poetry or spoken rap lyrics, that includes some beautiful turns of phrase: “I’ve been a face in the crowd, a nameless number under the sun.” “I’ve got to pop now, it’s got to be right here.” “Here, where I’m seen. Where I write my destiny. Here, where I can be every version of me.” It’s worth 2 min of your time to watch!  YouTube

The Winner

Whether or not it’s the one I would have chosen, Lumina’s judges had to pick just one…

Believe in Yourself

Madera CC (CA) found the winning formula in a touching Spanish-language testimonial from recent grad Marisela Maciel, who repeatedly identifies with the audience and describes the empathy she found on campus – “people who had walked in my shoes” and “gave me the courage to believe in myself.” In her testimonial, Marisela is paying that empathy forward too, speaking directly to prospective students. She begins by saying, “I want you to believe something you know,” and ends with “You work hard. You persevere. You belong at Madera Community College.”  YouTube

The judges explain that “Madera really impressed us by their focus on creating a visceral sense of belonging on campus and in their message of generational transformation.” The $1M grant will be used to create physical campus spaces celebrating regional culture, establish community events, improve processes and build community pride.

Winning Themes

So, what can we learn from this $2M contest, which explicitly aimed to advance CC brand efforts to the next level?


Lumina’s $1MCCC was designed to push CCs to think about compelling messages, particularly for working-age adults, beyond the typical emphasis on open admission and affordable tuition. The 10-min winner announcement video includes excerpts from the most “compelling moments” from all 10 finalists, which Lumina divides into 4 sections. (What are your dreams? How will you get there? What’s your next step? It’s about you!)

But allow me to do my own thematic analysis, with different aims in mind…

Pursue your dreams. Obviously, most of the finalist videos emphasize the power and potential of pursuing your dreams, in career and in life. For many, it’s to learn English, to gain financial stability, and ultimately to get “jobs that pay and careers that matter.” For some it’s a nursing career (quite a few, actually). For others, it’s buying a new home, or starting their own business. Successful grads talk a bit about their fulfilling careers, and how they can’t imagine why they thought it was all out of reach, before pursuing college.

Do it for your family. Most of the finalist videos urged listeners to “Do it for your family. Do it for you.” A “dreamer” (undocumented immigrant brought to the US at age 3) describes the need to “prove to myself and my family that my legal status does not define what I can accomplish in life.” A construction worker’s kids remove his hard hat and replace it with a mortarboard, and then a suit jacket. One man says “I do this for the block. I put on for my community.”

We understand your challenges. Whether spoken by a college employee or a recent grad, most of these finalist videos explicitly empathize with the fear and anxiety of prospective students contemplating the “scary, stressful, nerve-wracking, intimidating” step of PSE. Northwest-Shoals CC (AL) opens with a student turning away from the campus doors, saying aloud, “I just don’t think college is for me.” Houston CC opens with an intimidating wall of boxes labelled for all the emotional and financial obstacles that “weigh people down.” A Madison student says “I can be a little more bold when I don’t have to worry about groceries, childcare, or rent.” Long Beach CC depicts the many challenges a working father might face juggling kids, work, internet outages, and transportation issues while trying to enroll. Minnesota State College Southeast portrays the frustration of a mom copying with rambunctious kids at the laundromat, and a stranded motorist with engine trouble. Great Falls College (MT) opens with “We see you.”

Find a family on campus. Many of these CCs emphasize the nurturing support they provide students. Obviously, they all depict plenty of friendly, one-on-one interactions with staff, faculty, and fellow students. “We’re here for you.” “We promise, you’ll never go this alone. We’ve got you. Welcome home.” Some recent grads say their college community felt like “family.” One emphasizes that the college believed in her. Another movingly expressed that she found staff and faculty who had walked in her shoes. “I don’t think I could have made it this far without those people.”

Part of your community. Not just in the sense that these are local CCs, but that they are respectfully, integrally connected with Latinx, Indigenous and other marginalized communities. Madison Area Technical College (WI) features rap lyrics (beat poetry?) delivered by a series of Black men, who explicitly talk about “their block.” Says one narrator (in Spanish), “I’m not just the voice in the background of this video. I work at CCRI… This position gives voice to my community, to your community, to our community.”

Just take the first step. And keep going. While every ad includes a call-to-action that aims to overcome inertia and hesitancy, the finalists emphasize taking things one day at a time. One successful grad urges, “My advice is just to take one subject. Take a class… [and then] a second, and it can change your life.” Another college grad reminds us, “You don’t have to be great to get started, but you gotta get started to be great!” Some students admitted to hardships, even failing a semester. But “it’s never too late to follow your dream.”

These all seem like they would probably be compelling messages for prospective CC students, and particularly for mature learners. What we can say with certainty is that these were the themes that won over the $1MCCC judges – a group of US marketing and enrolment experts. Hopefully I’ve saved you a few hours by distilling it down here!

Next week, I’ll return with a series of issues focusing on the PSE implications of the SCOTUS “Dobbs” ruling, which overturned Roe v Wade (and, arguably, 50 years of gender equity and social progress). I’ve been furiously researching and writing about it for weeks – actually, for 3 months now. Its impact on US colleges will be massive, and will inevitably spill over to CdnPSE too.

In the meantime, though, have a great weekend everyone!

Stay safe and keep cool!


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