Yes& General

Building a Higher Education Brand that Connects

Anna-Marie Montague

Be Appealing, Distinctive – and, Above All, Authentic

Competition for students is keen and projected to become more challenging. College and university enrollment declined 13 percent (2.6 million) over the past decade. Thanks to declining U.S. birthrates, another 11-15 percent drop is expected beginning in the mid-2020s.[1] COVID accelerated the trend, with 20.7 percent fewer students enrolling in college from high school in 2020 than 2019, and more than one in four enrolled students in 2019 who didn’t return the following fall.[2]

Institutions are adapting by honing their value propositions, appealing to older adults and untapped markets, and striving to engage and attract prospective Gen Z students.

That’s where branding comes in. Great visual identity and team mascots matter—but a brand’s power lies in effectively conveying brand essence (who you are as an organization and what you stand for), and your distinctive value to students. How you live your brand is just as important as how you present it.

First, Know Your Audience

Whether you’re planning a consolidation-driven rebrand, launching a new campus, or pondering a refresh, any branding initiative should be an information-informed strategic effort. Understanding your key audiences is vital.

Research from organizations like McKinsey[3] provides valuable insights on how today’s high school graduates differ from prior generations. As a group, Gen Z-ers are pragmatic, analytical, and realistic, and used to self-educating and mining data from many sources. Having grown up in a period of global economic stress, they’re less idealistic than millennials, keenly aware of the need to save for the future, and view job stability as more important than high salaries. At the same time, they place more importance than prior generations on human rights, racial and ethnic equity, LGBTQ issues, and feminism.

A few brand take-aways:

  • Gen Z doesn’t view higher education in general as a golden ticket to success. You’ll need concrete examples, data, and success stories that prove the value of your programs.
  • It’s important to prove—but not oversell—your commitment to equity and sustainability. Gen Z will scrutinize what you do and listen to what your students and online communities have to say about you. Being transparent about where you are and how you’re striving to improve is the best approach. Greenwashing will boomerang, for example, and you can’t tout success in attracting a diverse study body without also addressing how you’ll plan to evolve the composition of tenured faculty or a Board that skews heavily white and male.

Developing an effective brand demands much more, of course, than high-level understanding of Gen Z, from a deep dive into key audience segments and creating personas to help focus messaging and calls to action evaluating the competitive landscape and performing a SWOT analysis of your current brand, messaging, and platforms; and auditing brand consistency across schools, programs, departments, and spokespersons.

A solid brand will align with your institutional mission, resonate with current and prospective students and staff, and provide a framework for consistent yet tailored messaging across your varied stakeholders… from students and parents to alumni, funders, and community partners. It’s a tall order, but central to everything else you do to promote your institution, drive applications, raise funds, and attract and retain academic talent.





Yes& is the Washington, DC-based marketing agency that brings commercial, association, and government clients the unlimited power of “&” – using a full suite of branding, digital, event, marketing, public relations, and creative capabilities to deliver meaningful and measurable results.

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Anna-Marie Montague
Anna-Marie Montague
Senior Writer/Strategist