How would winning a million dollars transform your community college brand? On this episode of the Community College Marketing Master Class Podcast, Dr. Pam Cox-Otto, CEO of Interact, is joined by Shauna Davis and Mary Laphen of the Lumina Foundation to discuss the $1 Million Community College Challenge.

Episode Transcript:

Dr. Pam Cox-Otto:         Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the Interact podcast. I am very lucky today to have folks from the Lumina Foundation with me. And we’re going to be talking about a special project they’re implementing. I’m not going to try to explain it. I’m going to toss it over to them after they introduce themselves. Shauna, tell us about you and what you do at the Lumina.

Shauna Davis:               Thank you so much. I’m Shauna Davis and I’m the strategy director for community college participation, which is our strategy focused on the enrollment and re-enrollment of adults in community colleges.

Dr. Pam Cox-Otto:         Well, and everybody in the universe right now at a community college is absolutely focused on that. Mary, tell us about yourself.

Mary Laphen:               Hi, good afternoon. My name is Mary Laphen and I am strategy officer for participation in community colleges at Lumina Foundation.

Shauna Davis:               We’re really excited about this particular work, so for people who aren’t familiar with Lumina Foundation, is it okay to start there?

Dr. Pam Cox-Otto:         Oh, please go ahead.

Shauna Davis:               That would be great. So, Lumina Foundation is an independent private foundation and we’re based in Indianapolis, Indiana. And we’re committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all. And now we are focused on credentials and you’ll hear us say the word credentials, so we don’t just mean degrees. Certainly four year, two year degrees are important, but we mean all credentials of values, certificates, certifications. Our goal is to help prepare people for informed citizenship and for success in a global economy. So we know that our economy needs people with talent in a broad range of credentials and skills. And so we want to, anyone who wants to try should have an opportunity to earn those skills or those credentials. So our work in this big kind of stratosphere of strategies and things that we do to support individuals, organizations, systems, our work is really centered on community colleges and what’s called the learning and work team.

And we’re really excited about that because we look at kind of participation in at community colleges. We look at student success strategies, our colleagues that are focused on that. And our colleagues also on the team are focused on employment aligned credentials. So how we got here is really interesting. We started really digging into the development of our strategy and we were saying, well, there’s a lot of work being done around the process of enrollment, as it should, the process improvement is a really good thing to do. There’s a lot of work being done around policy removal of barriers, as it should.

And one of the things that we didn’t see a lot of work nationally, we know there are organizations doing this work for sure, but we didn’t see a national focus really on how community colleges were really positioned, in terms of their, the brand positioning, in terms of the brand perception of community colleges among adults. And we looked at adults with this idea as adults being education consumers. And so Mary, maybe tell us a little bit more about, how we were thinking about that. I think it was kind of really fascinating how we kind of got to this point.

Mary Laphen:               Yeah, sure. Thanks Shauna. So we think about adults as education consumers. They’re our students but our students have choices. And when our students are thinking about where to go to college, they can go to a two year institution. They can go to a four year institution. They can also choose no college. And we’re very aware that in this day and age, they have all these options and we want to really rise community college, raise community colleges up to being a great option for them. And I think that part of that is that in today’s day and age, we have messaging coming to us all the time. So as consumers, we hear about the best laundry detergent, the best clothing brand that we want. College is part of that too. So what we thought about was how do we think about bringing the community colleges to our communities and making sure that each individual community college can really focus on what makes them unique?

What’s special about them? What do they bring to their constituents? And how do we bring that to the community college? Historically we haven’t seen a huge focus on community college, kind of branding. And a lot of that is around that there has been like they’re open access, they’re mission focused. These are all great things, but we want to make sure that with their open doors, our students know, and they know what to expect when they go to a community college and why they should want to go through those open doors and why they should go to a community college campus.

Dr. Pam Cox-Otto:         You know, sometime back in the sixties, when community colleges really took off, someone decided that affordable, accessible and close to home was the perfect triumvirate message. And we really haven’t changed much since then. And truthfully, I’ve never talked to a high school student who thought close to home was a great thing. They’re all looking to escape and affordable and accessible. Sure, those are important elements, but if we’re not careful, we make them sound like the Payless Shoes of, excuse me Payless, the Payless Shoes of education. And that’s not it. I don’t think there’s any educational system that does the quality job that community colleges do in terms of preparing people for either a four year degree or for a successful career. And they don’t take a backseat to anyone. And yet we’re still using this, this kind of, we’re cheap, come on by we’re just next door.

And if I ever hear another start here, go anywhere brand, I’m just, that just makes me insane. Sorry, that’s my personal issue here clearly. I think you’re spot on. I think that whole idea of recasting community colleges as a major upskill in their life and a major generator of pathways of choices, the one thing I can say is everybody living through this pandemic feels a little trapped, no matter where you are or what job you do, that idea that you just don’t have the choices that you normally would want. And the idea that community colleges can broaden the choices that you have access to and allow, and give you the power to drive your own darn bus. That just makes sense to me. So, you’ve called it the million dollar community college challenge, right?

Shauna Davis:               Yeah.

Dr. Pam Cox-Otto:         So tell me in your minds what that looks like in terms of the entire structure of this.

Mary Laphen:               Yeah. So the million dollar community college challenge, well, first I’ll kind of start with it. The name was intentional. So we call it the million dollar community college challenge because we want to be, we want this amount of money to be transformational to a community college. This is designed to bring resources to a community college that you may otherwise not have had this amount of money to spend specifically on branding and marketing. And to answer your question around the structure. So first we’re asking for everyone, for community colleges best ideas, we want to know what they see, what they’re great at, what they see is what they bring to their community. And then what is their vision for how they can share that with their community best. We’re looking for creative ideas, we’re looking for ideas that really showcase what the student experience can look like, specifically for our adult learners going to a community college.

And from there, we’re going to be working with our top 10 finalists as you mentioned to think about how do we really refine that brand? How do we bring that to light? And we’ll get to see a second round and then really sharing that the million dollar winner from there. And then something that I think is really neat about this work in particular is that we’re going to be providing technical assistance along the way. So we have some resources that are available now on our website, but we’ll also be providing technical assistance to all 10 of our finalists during the challenge, as well as after the challenge when they’re grantees.

Dr. Pam Cox-Otto:         And that is the most single most critical piece, which is the ongoing kind of support because I think colleges do yeoman’s work in terms of starting projects. It’s when you are being pecked to death by the million daily challenges of being a modern leader at a community college that it’s really easy to lose focus. So, having that kind of support, that makes incredible, sense. So let me ask you this, we do a, interact does an annual survey of marketing and what colleges spend. And one of the things we see is that there’s a big difference between rural colleges and what they have and how much acreage they have to handle and how many people. And urban and suburban. There’s just such a really wide range of both needs and responsibilities in terms of getting the message out. What do you say to small colleges, rural colleges, urban, suburban, how do you see this all coming together in terms of this challenge?

Shauna Davis:               Well, the first thing we would say is apply.

Dr. Pam Cox-Otto:         Fair enough.

Shauna Davis:               We really do. We say apply. And if a college digs into our application on the challenge website, which is So if they go there and look at the application, they’ll see that we’re really asking questions that any college could answer. So there’s no preferential treatment, given by size, location of an institution, we’re not going to look any differently at an institution. What we do ask is we ask them to give us the context of their community, and that’s really important. So when we think about strategy or strategic thinking, we really want to understand where the college lives. And we think about colleges they’re living organisms, you’re serving a community of lots of different people doing lots of different things.

There’s different, you’ve mentioned already, in terms of geography, but also in terms of opportunities, work opportunities, experiences, maybe even a different focus and some community colleges, focus maybe a little bit more by way of population on a younger population, a traditional age student, and some focus much more on workforce training and skills for more mature student population. And so we just want to really understand who that community college is, where they live and what their strategic thinking is in line with doing this work. So to that in that regard, we know that, of course not every college has the same resources, but every college can have great ideas. And so we just encourage all institutions. We don’t want any rural colleges to be discouraged from applying, please apply. And tell us more, tell us what we need to know and what we need to learn. And about your great ideas on how to reach your community.

Dr. Pam Cox-Otto:         So I totally understand why colleges should, everyone should apply for this. But my question then to you is what do you hope comes out of it from the standpoint of all of these ideas? What does Lumina hoping not only with the transformation of those individual colleges, but what are you hoping will ultimately come out of this process?

Shauna Davis:               That’s a really good question. So the basis of the challenge starts out of a broader piece of work that we were doing. We’ve been doing work nationally in our particular area around with some states on strategic enrollment management. We’ve been working with some colleges directly on RFP that we had called prioritizing adult community college enrollments, in which we saw these colleges identify strategies that they were intently focused on to scale, to increase the enrollment of adult students. And then we were also looking at, as we mentioned earlier, this work around community college brand positioning, what do people think about community colleges and also kind of helping community colleges understand adult as education consumers? Right? So, and these are also when I think it’s important to think about the adults before they become students as well. I think we’ve done a lot of work in saying, well, we know how to serve our students.

But when we think about the many more people in our community who aren’t choosing any college, or they’re not finishing, many people who have some college and no degree, we want to also think about the people who haven’t yet made the choice and, or the commitment, or had the ability to make the commitment to become students. So what we hope to get out of this is really a couple of things. One is that through this broader work that we’ve been doing, we’ve been asking community colleges about, who they are and how they think their brand is positioned. We’ve been working with a marketing consulting company that has been fielding some research around adults who have no college degree and have some college and no degree, but would consider community colleges to ask them about what they think and in what they’re looking for.

So we’ve been doing all of these pieces of work. And then with this work right here, coming out of the applications and the richness of the information there, what we look forward to providing to everyone, regardless of whether you win the challenge of funds or not, we hope to provide some resources to the field on how to better position your brand. And then how in kind of this idea that you don’t have to have a ton of money. You don’t have to see yourself as a competitor with, a major university somewhere that has, probably, a much higher marketing budget. What you do have to understand is who you are, what you do well, and the community needs to know that. And who you are today, I think is really important. That’s another thing that we’re really interested in getting out of this. Many community colleges have been around for a while.

And so what they started out to be 50 years ago, and we’ve heard this from some community college leaders, 50 years ago, maybe we were focused on one aspect of our mission, or we were focused on students who fit a certain demographic. And now, we have our community has grown and changed, and industry has changed around us. And we see our work this way. We know our students have changed in this way. And so the community may not know what’s happening behind the doors. And so I think that’s a part of the brand of community colleges as local institutions that primarily serve people who live and work and stay in the community. We really want to learn about how they’ve, how their thinking has changed and their positioning. So, that’s really what we hope to get out of it. We hope to kind of add to that broader base of research, but also to leave people with very practical resources that they can use to better communicate and position their brand in their communities.

Dr. Pam Cox-Otto:         Well, and in a sense, it’s been probably sourced by the most, the folks who really have the credibility, meaning by other community colleges on what works and what doesn’t. And you can be offering suggestions that really do hit across, from the rural area to the urban, you can offer ideas that work no matter how spread out or how closely housed everyone is in a community. So, no, that just makes a lot of sense. So let me ask you this when you’re, what is the timeline for this? When are you hoping that obviously we’re going to ask people to go out and start their application and work on this now, but how quickly do you see being able to harvest the results of this bigger effort?

Shauna Davis:               Yeah. So, Mary do you want to talk about kind of the timeline, and then I’d love to kind of talk about the harvest.

Mary Laphen:               Yeah.

Dr. Pam Cox-Otto:         Excellent. Go.

Mary Laphen:               So yeah, we have hit the road and we are accepting applications now through March 15th. So as Shauna mentioned, we encourage any and all community college to please apply. And then we are really looking to find those 10 finalists in April, and then hope to announce our winner and start the work this coming August 2022 and Shauna, I’ll let you speak to the harvest.

Shauna Davis:               Yeah. So one of the things that’s really interesting, the challenge is exciting. You can tell we’re excited about this, but what’s really interesting about this is that the work doesn’t end with the challenge, identifying, winners, $1 million winner, and of course, nine, $100,000 winners. That’s an exciting process, there’s so much there. Once that those awards are made, then we’re going to be able to follow these colleges along through the grant period. So for the next year to two years, to see what they actually do and how they do that. So that’s going to be exciting for us. So look for in the future, there’ll be more information. It’s not our goal that we launch a challenge and then walk away. It’s our goal that we launch the challenge. We’re sparking kind of a conversation that’s being had in pockets, but to really have this national conversation and awareness on this.

And then we want to see what those colleges do, see how they transform, see what they learn and what they’re able to accomplish with the resources and the technical assistance. And then from that greater work that I mentioned earlier, expect this year, I think we’re looking at, and maybe this fall, I believe it was the timing of that lined up. Don’t quote me on a specific date, but it will be this year. And you will all hear about it. There will be that work that will release to the field to support the work. And Kim, you made a really good point a minute ago. You’ve made several good points, but you’ve made a really good point a minute ago. Yeah. There are things you can fear across, right? But in higher education, we love a model.

And so there are things that absolutely we say, here are good practices and here are good principles, here are good things that you could do, but we also want colleges to dig into really being able to be clear about what’s special about you and what do you do? In a way. What is your point of excellence? What is your point? What is the thing that you provide to your community that you say, this is special here, and that’s something we also want to make sure that they can articulate and not just say it, but we know that your brand is the experience that people have with your institution. So can you see it, can you experience it? Do you have the support and the programs that reinforce what you’re saying?

So I do think it’s important that we kind of get across that. What we’re not looking for is someone to tell us, well, here’s some idea for a catchy, ad campaign that we’re trying to have. We really want you to think that could be a part of it. But what we really want to know is, how do students experience your institution? What is their perception of your institution? What is your perception of your institution and how can you strengthen your brand, strengthen that experience and that perception of the institution and the community.

Dr. Pam Cox-Otto:         You know, as you’re talking, I’m thinking so many colleges turn outward to basically let’s quote market, let’s do digital. Let’s do the traditional, I’ll say marketing media kinds of things. When truthfully the strength of the brand comes from within everything you were just saying, it’s generated internally by faculty and staff, and it’s experienced by the students, right? So I can tell you I’m tall, slender, and blonde. And the minute you look at me, you’ll know, that’s not true. So colleges have to be having a brand that is, that when the student experiences, it actually resonates in terms of. This is the school that they say they are.

Shauna Davis:               Yes.

Dr. Pam Cox-Otto:         They’re living the things that they’re offering to me, it’s more than simply, quick, clever words. It’s about, a connection. And for me, it comes down to frictionless services that are smooth and then sticky relationships. I know that sounds weird, but relationships where five years from now, you’re sending a note back to your college counselor to say, this was a turning point in my life. This is a wonderful thing. And community colleges are good at that, but we’re not as good at bragging about it. So [crosstalk 00:21:41], I love hearing you talking.

Shauna Davis:               Yeah, you’re absolutely correct. There’s that, you’re absolutely right. We know, when you’re working and I think about when I used to work, on community college campuses, we know those stories, but we don’t tell them. We just don’t tell them enough and you’ll see other institutions that will just brag on their graduates and they will just, and they will. And so it’s okay for us to talk about, for community colleges and for us in higher education to talk about the good things that are happening. And when we have, examples of students who are out here just doing really great things, we should tell other people about it. It’s so important. And it’s important for a lot of reasons, not just so the institution can feel good about itself, but it’s important when we think about representation and we need more people in the community to see people who look like them succeeding, and they need to see that this pursuit of this credential, this education, what happened? We talk a lot about getting you to the door, so you get to the door, right?

And we really want to know, what happened? What’s the story? And we also want to foster a greater sense of institutional pride as local institutions in the community.

Dr. Pam Cox-Otto:         Well, closing the loop between the beginning of the journey and the successful conclusion of the journey and how transformative that can be to a family. That’s the story that more and more, I think potential students, communities are yearning for authenticity and showing that there’s an end to this that’s worth the financial time and investment that it takes to get a degree or a certificate or any kind of, step up in their educational journey. So, no, makes perfect sense to me. So, okay. We’re going to, I’m absolutely going to send out a blast to everyone telling them to apply for this. My question to you is, any words of wisdom for those sitting here going, I’m going for that? I already know how I could spend 100,000 to a million dollars. What would you say to people out there who are just now sitting here thinking, yep. I’m going to go for it? What would you tell them?

Mary Laphen:               Yeah, so there’s a couple things I would say first to [inaudible 00:24:02], I would say, go for it. We are looking for colleges to send us their best ideas. So, and I encourage colleges when they send us their ideas to assume that they will be winning the million dollars. Obviously we’ll only have one million, $1 million winner, but we want to know what does that look like for your institution? And I would also say that, as Shauna mentioned in higher education, we like to play it safe. We like models. We like, to have something to build off of, this is not a challenge where we’re asking you to play it safe. We’re asking colleges to really step out of the box. I mean, certainly there does need to be data behind it. And certainly there does need to be strategic thinking. But with that backbone in mind, we are asking colleges to really consider, what does it look like to transform their brand? And what does it look like to really get out into their communities and to be sharing the message of their great work. Shauna, what would you add?

Shauna Davis:               I, I think you said it all.

Dr. Pam Cox-Otto:         Well, when you said it all, no win to head for the door i guess that’s the best lesson I can share with anyone today. Thank you. Both of you, Shauna and Mary. I appreciate it. The Lumina does wonderful work, and I think this is going to be something that will peak college’s interest. And I know the quality of schools we’ve got out there. You’re going to get some wonderful feedback for this.

Shauna Davis:               Thank you so much. Thank you for having us.

Mary Laphen:               Yeah, thank you.

Dr. Pam Cox-Otto:         A pleasure to have you on, take care.

Shauna Davis:               You too.

Dr. Pam Cox-Otto:         And we stop. So there we are.

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By Published On: February 18, 2022Last Updated: September 7, 2023Categories: Podcasts, UncategorizedTags: ,