10 Higher Ed Rebrands Redefining College Identities

From Wisconsin’s shift to “Universities of Wisconsin” emphasizing inclusivity to Cleveland State’s “CSU 2.0” fostering emotional connections, higher ed institutions are strategically developing distinct identities.

By: Ryan Schwartz
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The evolving landscape around higher education has institutions continually striving to redefine their identities and resonate with prospective students while separating from the competition. Higher ed rebranding has emerged as a strategic response to refresh a college’s image. 

This list delves into recent higher ed rebranding campaigns and sheds light on the strategies and creative transformations that some institutions have undertaken.

1. University of Wisconsin to Universities of Wisconsin              

In October 2023, UW system president Jay Rothman unveiled the Universities of Wisconsin. The small but meaningful change to the previous University of Wisconsin emphasizes the plurality of Wisconsin’s school system of 13 public universities. This change accompanied new brand graphics, including a logo, mark and map to represent the constellation of UW’s university locations. The university system projects the full transition to be finished in early 2024. 

“Our new identity aims to broaden awareness of our universities across the state,” said Rothman in a recent interview. “We believe the Universities of Wisconsin identity is more relatable for students, families and employers.”

The decision also seems to coincide with the refinements to the U.S. News & World Report. This year’s college rankings formula now has an increased emphasis on economic and racial diversity, as well as metrics tied to the percentage of first-generation college students on campus.

UW’s sudden and encompassing changes showcase the full scale of universities that the Wisconsin system has to offer, thus providing recognition and opportunity to a larger number of students and colleges. The rebrand seems to act as a sort of level-setting for the university system with a large emphasis on equality of opportunity and access to a good education.

2. Mercy College to Mercy University

In August 2023, the New York State Board of Regents approved Mercy College changing its status to a university. This change was reflected by Mercy’s dedication to continued growth by providing courses and opportunities to a wider variety of college students. 

The New York State Education Department’s recent change to the definition of “university,” which removed the need for doctor programs and degrees for two or more professional fields, ignited the decision to re-brand the college. The decision to change designation is not unique to Mercy. Utica — another New York institution — also rebranded from “college” to “university” to recognize its opportunity growth. 

Officially rebranding the designation from a “college” to a “university” demonstrates the institutions’ wide variety of study opportunities for future college students. It also provided the universities with serious marketing boosts as competition among schools has increased.

3. UMass Boston’s brand campaign

The University of Massachusetts Boston recently launched a new brand campaign to reflect the university’s place in the Commonwealth as a hub for upward mobility and social leadership. The university attempts to wear the brand and story with which it was conceived on its sleeve, with the main goal being to provide Boston with a diverse workforce across a variety of sectors.  

Chancellor Marcelo Suárez-Orozco of the UMass Boston Office of Communications described the change as “a pivotal moment for the school […] at UMass Boston, we democratize education, where our students rise to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.” 

UMass Boston also included a change to its logo. The new design better reflects the university’s connection with the region and displays a lighthouse to symbolize the school’s mission to serve as a beacon in urban higher education.

UMass Boston updated logo, blue logo on the white background.

UMass Boston’s recent rebrand reflects its ongoing mission to democratize higher education in an environment where national universities are now receiving recognition for providing upward social mobility and technical skills to all socioeconomic classes to thrive in an ever-changing job market.

4. Midwestern University updated logo

Midwestern University recently released an updated brand logo that was accompanied by publications, marketing materials and refreshed social media channels. The institution hopes the new logo and image will improve brand recognition and impact while honoring and incorporating the university’s continued support of a quality healthcare education. 

The new brand features a cleaner and more refined image, ditching the traditional university seal that is usually associated with higher education. The logo reflects the image of a pharmacy company or hospital rather than an academic institution. With this updated logo, Midwestern University is representing the future of healthcare education and the healthcare industry as a whole.

Midwestern University new logo, golden letters M and W and Midwestern University written in blue on the white backround.

In an era when more and more companies are shifting toward more refined and minimalistic brands and logos, it is easy to fall into the trap of redesigning and reworking every aspect. This leads to abandoning an image and brand that people have always associated with the university. 

Midwestern University’s new look sets a precedent for future changes. Rather than continually chasing a new look, colleges need to acknowledge and build upon the brands instead of ditching the images altogether.

5. USC sunsets U of SC rebrand

The University of South Carolina quickly ditched the “UofSC” logo mark that it adopted in 2019 and shifted back to its previous acronym “USC.” This change was motivated by complaints from a variety of the college’s stakeholders, including alumni, students and university employees. UofSC was an attempt for the school to differentiate itself on a national level because USC is the same acronym as the University of Southern California. 

Jeff Stensland, South Carolina’s director of public relations, said the decision to revert to the older moniker embodied “the university’s long-standing history.” According to Stensland, alumni and students alike are receptive to the reversal. The decision accompanied a redesigned logo featuring an updated look of USC’s tree and gate. 

“It separated us [USC] from a search engine perspective,” said Jason Porter, visual communications professor, about the original 2019 rebrand. “Just being able to Google ‘UofSC,’ we’re the only thing that pops up.” 

Much like Midwestern University’s recent redesign, South Carolina’s 2019 acronym change was motivated by a desire to separate itself from the national limelight. However, despite making sense in theory, many alumni did not receive the change well and believed that it was not representative of the community. 

Universities can learn from USC’s rebranding experience to develop a better understanding of the aesthetics and designs with which alumni and students have associated institutions in years past.

6. Cleveland State University to CSU

Cleveland State University students woke up on a chilly January 2023 morning to an email from their university that stated intentions to revamp the university’s brand, dubbing the project “CSU 2.0.” CSU 2.0 brought in a variety of changes to the school’s image, such as a new logo, changing the original “seal” of the university to three green letters reading “CSU” and introducing “We are CSU” as the new tagline. 

According to the university, the new tagline better supports an emotional connection with those in the CSU community, utilizing a collective “we” in the tagline and allowing for customizable story-telling and individual experiences under the college’s umbrella. CSU’s revamp served as a response to the university’s full-time enrollment steadily dropping in recent semesters and outlining a need to remain competitive with schools such as Kent State University and the University of Akron. 

Cleveland State’s rebrand wasn’t cheap either, costing more than $1.4 million. CSU hopes the rebrand will bring on 4,500 new students and 200 additional faculty members over the next two years. CSU’s goals seem to be on track, with the institution’s recent enrollment increasing by 25% for 2023-24.

7. Davidson College’s Updated Logo 

Davidson College took a refreshed approach ahead of the fall 2023 semester. With the revamped logo, the college sought to unite all aspects of the Davidson experience: academics, athletics and arts. 

In conjunction with an outside firm, the college gathered research from students, staff and alumni to understand key elements of the college’s identity and garner overall support for the redesign. The logo is to be the finishing touch for the college’s new $50 million football stadium, which should be finished in time for the 2024 football season. 

“Our community has expressed enthusiasm for our new visual identity,” said Mark Johnson, Davidson’s chief communications and marketing officer. “There are a few for whom the change doesn’t land well, but overwhelmingly our students, alumni employees and neighbors have expressed appreciation for how well the logo and system represent Davidson College.” 

By updating the college’s logo and using it as the stadium marquee, Davidson competes with other colleges in the area known for their strong academics and recognizable sports programs. Earlier this year, Wake Forest University, another institution located in North Carolina, unveiled the $138 million McCreary Football Complex. Davidson’s logo and stadium revamp are similar investments in collegiate athletics. 

“In order to raise our profile, we need to be clear about how we identify ourselves,” said Johnson. “We moved from a mix of seven logos to one that is based on research and a deep understanding of who we are.”

8. Gordon College’s Brand Overhaul

Rather than tweaking the logo, altering the tagline or changing the name of the college, Gordon College underwent a complete brand overhaul to ring in the 2023 school year. Gordon College’s refreshed brand identity includes an updated logo, tagline and even color palette. 

This brand refresh communicates the brand story, attempting to make it more relevant to a new generation of students. Gordon handled every aspect of the project in-house. After extensive market research and analysis, Gordon College updated its website and social media posts and included a YouTube video introducing the changes. 

The launch was deemed a success, with students and stakeholders positively reacting to the updated brand image. The college’s social media engagement skyrocketed, doubling the normal reach to new accounts, which won Gordon College a 2023 American Inhouse Design Award

Despite taking a risky move and launching a complete overhaul of the brand, Gordon’s staff put out a well-received product through extensive research and an exciting rollout.

9. Roanoke College’s New Brand and Logo

As small colleges are competing more and more to attract students, Roanoke College launched a full-scale rebrand and refreshed its visual identity. The brand platform includes an updated logo, messaging and color palette. Roanoke’s brand refresh harkens to a universally recognized aesthetic associated with the collegiate world, presenting the school’s tenets in a clean and detailed school seal. 

Roanoke launched ambitious plans paralleling the release of the new identity, pairing the branding launch with a school-wide celebration involving food, drinks and music. The college even invested in debuting a new food truck with the updated school brand.

The brand reveal was impressive on its own, Roanoke but the reveal incorporated with the school-wide celebration organically garnered excitement among students and staff. The response makes it clear that Roanoke College’s rebrand launch is already a success.

Roanoke College new and old logo, correct and incorrect use cases, maroon logo on a white background.

10. Iona College to Iona University 

In 2022, Iona College made the change to Iona University. Through the name change, Iona sought to cement its ongoing mission of increasing academic opportunities and educational resources for students. 

The change also correlated with the university’s tremendous growth since 2020. After Iona’s enrollment increased by 35% in three years, the university acquired a second campus in nearby Bronxville, New York, to help expand classroom programming.

Iona’s dedication to its newfound university status is not in name only, as the university recently launched a new school of health sciences. The $20 million project will further expand Iona’s profile. The heavy investment into the school’s various programs paired with a soaring enrollment rate will only grow Iona’s academic profile and reputation.

Rebranding is an important and strategic aspect of redeveloping a college’s image to stick out in a crowded collegiate landscape. This list shows that marketing campaigns require campus connectivity, shareholder backing and staying true to the institution’s original purpose and message.

Ryan Schwartz

Ryan Schwartz

Reporter


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