College Branding in an Open Source Era


At this year’s South by Southwest Interactive, I had a chance to speak with Anya Kamenetz, author of DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education. In her short but insightful book, Kamenetz outlines the forces that are starting to transform higher education in the U.S. and suggests alternative scenarios for what a college education might look like in the future.

One key prediction is that the traditional, four-year college experience will be under increasing pressure, with cost being the largest factor. Kamenetz outlines how we have arrived at today’s situation where four years of college can cost upwards of $200,000 at top universities, and even public institutions are becoming unaffordable. (As with health care, third-party payers – notably government grants and easy loans – are a key factgor in the upward price spiral.) Most would agree that the cost of higher education can’t continue to rise as it has, but few institutions are taking steps to rein it in. Indeed, there’s evidence that colleges that offer lower tuition than their academic peers are somehow suspect, as if they are cutting corners and delivering a less-rich experience.

One of the futures Kamenetz describes is the rise of open source education. For those who find the idea of open source learning far-fetched, one doesn’t have to look far to show the potential of community-driven products. The Neuromarketing website runs on a Linux server, with most of its content managed by WordPress and enhanced by numerous “plugins.” All of those products are free and community-driven. Wikipedia is another example of community building a resource that easily exceeds commercial ventures. (Note that paid/free hybridization is possible – I could download Linux and install it on my own server, but I find it cost-effective to pay a web hosting firm to manage that process. The theme for this blog is also a paid product, even though I could have chosen from thousands of available free themes.)

Getting into the details of how open source education might work is beyond the scope of this post, but efforts are underway to create and distribute all manner of free resources, from video lectures to downloadable textbooks. The need for interaction with fellow students is being addressed in various ways, including resources like the Hewlett Foundation-funded Peer2Peer University. We are a long way off from having open source degree programs that might be recognized by employers and academic institutions, but the building blocks are being put in place. Much as in open source software, hybrid business models will no doubt evolve; free materials might be incorporated in a paid degree program (for-profit or non-profit) that would add structure, accountability, and verification.

But what does this mean for traditional colleges? Nobody expects the Ivy League to go out of business, or even to have a dearth of qualified applicants. Indeed, many top US institutions saw record numbers of applicants this year. But what of the colleges without established brands? What about universities that are neither low-cost providers nor uniquely attractive to students? Much like faded computer operating systems and office productivity suites who couldn’t compete with either Microsoft or “free,” these undifferentiated institutions will find they are caught between their well-branded, well-funded competitors on one side and novel, much less expensive higher ed solutions on the other.

What’s a college to do? Building a brand isn’t the only solution, but it certainly must be a key part of any strategy based on attracting students in an increasingly competitive arena. A school that is known for something, whether that something special is academic, geographic, or even extra-curricular, will fare better than schools who have failed to establish their brand.

Building a college brand could pay dividends as novel methods of course delivery become popular and accepted. A traditional university with a strong brand will be able to extend that brand to, for example, online programs, electronic course materials, certification testing, and so on.

Investing in college branding is a tough prescription in 2010, when most schools are feeling financial pressure from the recession, lower levels of philanthropy, and cuts in government support. The alternative, though, is to imperil the long-term viability of the institution.

And, if you are interested in the future of higher education, check out Kamenetz’s book. You may not agree with everything or find some of the possible futures likely, but you will find plenty of food for thought.

Amazon link: DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education.

1 Comment
  1. Thomas Mills says

    I strongly agree. Establishing a college brand is vital to long-term viability of virtually every college and university and branding can be a key tool in accomplishing this objective.

    As an example, Kalamazoo Valley Community College (in Michigan) is presently developing consistent messages and visual materials across all communications media. This effort is based on the realization that the school absolutely must highly differentiate itself in order to remain a first-choice in higher education.

    The college initially distilled their unique brand position from extensive independent research conducted by a national firm. Subsequently, an internal six-member branding team was formed that included; four highly experienced faculty (with more than 120 years of collective teaching and external, private sector business experience in marketing, branding and design), the school’s marketing director and a highly honored, recent design graduate, to define and implement the brand. This synergistic team conceived and is now implementing, what conceivably could be, a totally new concept in branding.

    A brand is not a logo, it’s the collective experiences of the people who interact with or use a product or service and is a shared, common thought or idea in their minds that form the essence of the brand.

    Though the branding team initially conceived and considered over 200 new logo options, they ultimately selected and adapted the very familiar edu suffix used in every college or university domain name to reflect Kalamazoo Valley’s dedication and commitment to students. The team literally brought the school’s brand to life and gave it a visual representation.

    In essence, the team decided not to use a clichéd tagline and a traditional logo and created instead, a ThoughtMark™ (.edyou™), a LogoType (for the school’s name) and an AccentMark as mutually supportive elements of a branding toolkit. The team reasoned that, in order to favorably affect student attitudes toward the school and elicit positive, brand-supportive behavior from school employees, a traditional, static, two dimensional logo would be insufficient.

    The college has been consistently identified by both existing and former students as a highly student-centric organization. This became the basis for the creation a ThoughtMark™, designed to be evocative of the brand promise, “engaging students.”

    The unique twist to this visual element is it’s duality.

    .edyou™ is both…

    …a visual statement to students that they matter most – and that, as they themselves indicated repeatedly – the faculty, administration and staff at Kalamazoo Valley consistently show their approachability, concern and commitment to every student’s success. It says, it’s your education, it’s all about you.

    …and, .edyou™ is a visual reminder to all the dedicated school employees that, because the school is a service organization, they themselves, are responsible for living the brand every day and at every point of contact, in order to strengthen and fulfill the brand promise. And, at Kalamazoo Valley, it’s really all about you (the student)and you (faculty/staff/administrator).

    Additional creative approaches taken to reinforce the Kalamazoo Valley brand can be seen at a Ning social network (called BrandCentral), specifically created by the branding team at to enable students, faculty, staff and administrators to follow the brand development process.

    Perhaps the methods and ideas used by this community college can serve as inspiration and motivation for other colleges and universities to follow. The benefits of branding differentiation are undeniable.

    Thomas Mills, President
    MillsIdeas, llc

    Adjunct Special Projects Faculty
    Part-Time Advanced Graphic Design Instructor
    Kalamazoo Valley Community College

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