Is it Time to Brand Your Core or Gen Ed Curriculum?

One of the fun components of our jobs providing counsel at RHB is helping institutions develop branded core or general education curricula. These distinctive experiences encapsulate your market position and can create strong brand awareness.

Before I came to RHB, I spent a semester teaching at an institution on a block plan, meaning students took one course three hours a day for three and a half weeks, with a semester comprising three blocks. It was an incredible lesson in the construction and marketing of a distinctive (and exhausting) experience that I only am now beginning to truly understand. 

Shared curricular experiences can revolve around the idea that it is a civic virtue for the population to share knowledge and ideas so they can discuss the public good. However, convincing students and their families these experiences matter can require an orientation toward something more concrete: what, specifically, are the practical benefits of expending time and money on general education requirements that don’t seem to pertain to a major? These conversations matter a lot in an era when people are quite publicly skeptical about the value of college. At the same time, we have the jobs we do because we believe that the social goods of post-secondary education are also practical goods.

One of the methods we have for responding to the mood of this moment is by determining a strong market position and building experiences that support that position. Curricula take a central position here, because they are fundamental to discovering what it means to be a student at a particular institution and how to be successful there. 

Consider the academic year. Every institution has its own academic calendar. Your important dates and events are specific to you; the odds are pretty good you are not on a block plan. At the campus where I taught, one of the distinctive calendrical experiences happened the week before the semester officially began: a back-country camping trip. The intent was to separate first-year students in literal and figurative ways from what came before. Students had no choice but to prioritize their relationships with each other. This trip also gave students the opportunity to discover capacities they wouldn’t know they had if they hadn’t had to confront necessity. Once classes started, the students took First-Year Seminars together on special topics. Since the classes were small, students were, again, confronted by the necessity of doing and relationship building. Classes were also intense and intensive, given the aforementioned block plan.

Students knew their institution was different. They chose this college because of the combination of curricular and co-curricular experiences it offered; the fact that these were tough experiences was a plus. Students also knew they were having an expensive experience that would need to pay off beyond commencement. That means brand awareness and clarity need to be strong so that external audiences like employers understand why this combination of experiences develops alumni they want to hire.

Branded curricula can stretch beyond course requirements into elements like career counseling, individualized student advisory committees and study abroad or some other challenging time spent outside one’s normal daily life. Developing these curricula can be a great way to investigate your institution’s culture, strengths and priorities, and then distill them into a package that tells your audiences what makes you special. By extension, that tells prospective students what will make them special when they graduate. 

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. 
  • You need to demonstrate easily recognized value for customers. 
  • You need to increase enrollment by attracting best-fit prospects or shape your classes in keeping with your institutional mission. 
  • You need to give focus to your mission and your story. 
  • You need internal audiences on the same page. 
  • You need to generate new sources of income. 

A caution before you go all in: we’ve watched institutions add signature experiences because it’s what all the cool colleges are doing rather than something that meets one or more of the criteria in this list. We also see colleges add signature experiences that don’t seem entirely coherent with their missions. Packaging core curricula with study abroad, career preparation and an advisory team—and calling it a signature experience—doesn’t make it so (any more than adding a climbing wall makes you cutting edge in student well-being). Adding these elements also don’t necessarily make a branded curriculum match your important mission, vision or values. If career preparation is not part of your mission, shoehorning it on won’t make it fit.

By calling something a signature experience you’re telling your audience that this is an experience that defines the education a student received from your institution specifically, something they most likely won’t find anywhere else. We often ask how an institution can create an experience that forces a student to ask themselves at the point of yield “Can I live without this? What am I giving up if I choose some other school?”

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.” These are the types of missionally appropriate branded curricula students don’t want to live without.

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. 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, then-Executive Vice President for Enrollment. She attributed 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.”

Also consider 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 Scotties for thoughtful leadership and global citizenship, helped them welcome the largest and strongest class in their history. As well, ASC can brag that its student population features more than 60% self-identified students or color or international students, proving that a distinctive experience can also create opportunities to extend educational equity. U.S. News and World Report’s 2022 rankings list ASC as #1 for first-year experience, and for the fourth year in a row, innovation. Former president Elizabeth Kiss said SUMMIT 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 enduring relevance of Q&I means there are always new and important stories to tell about what a CUI education can do for its students. 

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

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. We are happy to share our expertise when you are ready to talk about undertaking such an invigorating project.

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Aimee Hosemann

Aimee is the Director of Qualitative Research at RHB.