Colleges such as Cleveland State University face all kinds of struggles, like enrollment pains amplified by the pandemic, a declining number of high school graduates, and a growing number of post-secondary options for students. 

The university’s full-time enrollment dropped again last semester, falling to 14,579 students. Kent State University, meanwhile, reportedly enrolled nearly 26,000 students, and the University of Akron had about 10,000 students. 

Now, CSU is working to rebrand itself in an attempt to reverse course and attract new students and faculty as well as boost research investments and create new programs. Administrators entered into a $1.4 million contract with Massachusetts-based higher ed marketing and strategy firm Carnegie to help do that. 

The details of that marketing contract, effective as of November 2021, were obtained by Signal Cleveland through a public records request. 

The contract between Cleveland State and Carnegie began under ousted former president Harlan Sands. He was a driving force behind the university’s ambitious “CSU 2.0” proposal. That plan outlined some big goals, like boosting total enrollment to 20,000 students by 2025. 

Instead, Sands’ successor, Laura Bloomberg, unveiled the “We are Cleveland State University!” campaign in January 2023. That tagline is the institution’s new “brand identity.” A new, streamlined logo accompanied it, along with two sleek promotional videos.  

Here are some notable details from the contract:

  • Competitive analyses: Carnegie is creating profiles for nine of CSU’s competitors. That research will look at things like cost comparisons, storytelling tactics, and visual identities, per the contract. 

Colleges tend to be reluctant to explicitly state who they see as competition for tuition dollars. But every year, they report to the U.S. Department of Education who they see as peers on measures like staff salaries and graduation rates. A recent list from CSU included the University of Akron, Portland State University, and the University of Memphis. 

  • Reputation strategy: This umbrella term seemingly covers several points related to learning more about how the university is perceived. Roy Gifford, the university’s vice president and chief marketing officer, told the Cleveland Stater last month that Carnegie spoke to more than 1,900 people about the institution as part of that research.
  • Communication campaigns: The firm crafted several email offerings to send via the software platform CSU uses to manage applicants. There’s one to urge parents and families to submit a deposit for their accepted students. Another is targeted at retaining students over the summer.  
  • Digital strategy plan: The contract spells out things like offering creative production for ad build outs and landing pages, along with an overall media strategy based on Cleveland State’s “specific goals, targets, and timeframes quarter-to-quarter in order to be as agile and responsive as possible.”

Carnegie says it has more than 600 other collegiate clients across the country, including places like John Carroll University and Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. The University of Alabama worked with the company several years ago to define the institution’s “personality and positioning strategy,” per its website

Minnesota State University Mankato, a public university with about 14,000 students, is awaiting approval from its state board for a five-year contract with the company set to max out at $2.25 million for strategizing and implementing social media advertisements. 

At Virginia’s James Madison University, the company charged a reported $28,760 for an audit of its current enrollment operations and a look at its communications as part of its package with Carnegie. 

Amy Morona covers higher education for Signal Cleveland, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.