Should You Brand Your Core or Gen Ed Curriculum?

As valuable as we know your general education curriculum to be in providing the broad perspective to yield informed and productive graduates, it’s still a tough sell to students and their families. Even parents with liberal arts degrees are raising questions about the relevance and validity of course requirements outside the academic and professional interests of their students.

Visit a few college and university websites and you’ll see attempts at promoting the value of gen ed courses. Words like “vital,” “integral,” “wide spectrum” and “exciting” are used to modify required courses. An understanding of the sciences doesn’t always seem relevant to business majors. Chemistry majors aren’t sure they really need the humanities. And most students don’t relish having to take a philosophy course.

Still, while our educational models are changing, most colleges and universities are committed to delivering a level of exposure to the pillars of knowledge and see them as foundational to the higher ed experience.

Some innovative colleges and universities are showing the way forward by articulating their curricula in ways that recast general education as a true value-added opportunity for students. These schools see the advantage of promoting their take on gen ed or a core curriculum as a path to being “one-of-a-kind.” Take, for example, Hendrix College’s successful Odyssey Program, which is designed to engage students in projects, activities and courses around individual interests while providing a broadly-based exploration of experiences across disciplines. Now in its 12th year, Odyssey demonstrated Hendrix’ early entry and innovative adoption of shaping a distinctive customer experience to better achieve its long-term vision. Since its launch, “enrollment has grown to a new level,” said Karen Foust, Executive Vice President for Enrollment. She attributes this, in large part, to the role Odyssey has played in helping students and alumni understand their collegiate experience. “Their Odyssey stories—from an internship in the Neonatology Department of Columbia Presbyterian’s Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital to using music to spark forgotten memories – really capture the essence of this exceptional program and attract new students and families who quickly recognize the value it will bring to their Hendrix education.”

Similar but different is the Cognates program at the University of Miami. Introduced in 2014, Cognates invite students to curate their own gen ed experience by selecting three courses from three different disciplines that are united by a common theme. A popular example is a nutrition Cognate that explores diet, fitness and physical well-being from biology, public health and humanities perspectives. Students can elect into preexisting Cognates (i.e. nutrition) or create their own from scratch, drawing on the breadth of options available from Miami’s nine distinct schools. The aim is to help students develop enough awareness in a topic that interests them to become, in turn, more interesting people.

Some institutions, such as Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, elect to reconfigure the core experience by introducing new ideas, experiences and curricula. Their launch of Summit, a signature approach to the liberal arts that prepares women for thoughtful leadership and global citizenship, helped them welcome the largest and strongest class in their history. “We needed a big idea to differentiate us in a competitive applicant marketplace,” ASC President Elizabeth Kiss told the Coca-Cola Company in a recent profile. Summit, she said, provided “a clear, compelling answer to the question: ‘Why Agnes Scott?’”

Other institutions, like Concordia University in Irvine, California, choose to give greater focus to an already well-conceived core curriculum by stepping up marketing for the program. CUI’s existing core was rigorous, well-planned and clearly meaningful to current students, but its name—“The Core”—did nothing to convey its nuances to prospective students. A new name—“Enduring Questions & Ideas” or “Q&I” for short—and supporting communications materials provided a better entry point for explaining its distinctive offerings and outcomes. “The icing on the cake with the new campaign and literature is that it accurately tells our story in a creative way,” said Rick Hardy, Associate Vice President for Marketing and Communications. “One of the main reasons for this work was to better prepare our students for what they were actually going to experience. I believe we’re now doing that.”

Whether re-inventing or re-conceiving a gen ed or core curriculum—or seeking to add value to an already-marketable existing curriculum, an important question to ask is: “How does this structure and experience add value to the student journey and experience?” Assuming that value is clearly articulated, another important question is: “Can this experience—and its value—be clearly understood by our audiences, both internal and external?” The answers to these two critical questions will lay the foundation for any strategy toward achieving greater brand awareness and enable an answer to: “How can we make this program serve us better in positioning our institution (and help us achieve our goals)?”

Designing, naming/branding and marketing a general education or core curriculum may run antithetical to commonly held educational traditions. Nonetheless, those institutions with a heart for innovation—and for attracting revenue—are enjoying positive results from the investments.

So why might you consider “branding” your general education or core curriculum? Here are a half dozen reasons to consider.

  • You need to create a more distinctive market position. Maybe your offerings sound like every other college or university. When you describe your wonderful institution, you are hard pressed to get beyond “there’s just something special about our school.” If you’ve been saying “we’re the best kept secret in ____,” then there’s probably a reason for that. You aren’t well positioned in the market. A well-branded and marketed core curriculum may give you a handle to describe how the particular educational journey you provide for students is superior.
  • You need to demonstrate easily-recognized value for customers. Eliminating the “fuzziness” of gen ed courses by giving meaning and purpose to coursework most students feel is unrelated to their ambitions will indicate not only a distinctive place in the market, but also your intention to deliver an unparalleled experience to meet the needs of students.
  • You need to increase enrollment by attracting best-fit prospects. Branding your core curriculum affords you the opportunity to further convey your mission and values through the distinctive curriculum you prescribe. The essence of your educational offering will be targeted to the types of students who will be drawn to the experience only you offer. Your branded curriculum improves your capacity to enroll the students best suited to your college or university.
  • You need to give focus to your mission and your story. A branded core curriculum that stems from your specific mission and values will provide you greater story-telling documentation of your market position. By aligning your core curriculum with your distinctive brand message, you will give evidence of the importance—and difference—of your place among competitors.
  • You need internal audiences on the same page. Higher education is rife with silos, especially when it comes to institutional storytelling. On a single campus, it’s easy to hear a multitude of descriptions about what makes your college or university distinctive. A branded curriculum can serve as a unifying concept around which your entire community can build—and tell—a common true story.
  • You need to generate new sources of income. While it might be difficult to enthuse a donor to underwrite a general education curriculum, it’s an entirely different story when a donor sees the way a branded curriculum benefits a campus community from new student recruitment through alumni engagement. A focused curriculum carries new naming opportunities to attract new resources.

Your existing general education or core curriculum may be stellar. But defining it more clearly, giving focus to its purpose and outcomes and aligning it with your brand may open up new possibilities for marketing, recruitment and advancement. It’s worth consideration.

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.