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Can a $3 million marketing campaign to promote higher education change the culture of a country-sized state in which just 27 percent of the population has a college degree or certificate? It worked for cancer ...

"Generation TX" stickers

The future of the state’s workforce may depend on getting Texans to feel as committed to higher education as they are the fight against cancer. At least, that’s what the state’s education policymakers are counting on.

“There are so many parallels,” says Katherine Jones, whose Austin-based agency, Milkshake Media, developed the branding for the Lance Armstrong Foundation's Livestrong campaign and was just hired by the state to promote the higher education brand in a massive campaign set to launch next month. “You’ve got a pervasive issue, and you are asking people to access a complex path.”

Students in other states outpace those in Texas on that path. As evidence, look no further than Texas' top universities, which graduate 78 percent of their students in six years or less, say, to University of California, Los Angeles, which graduates 90 percent in the same period.

In 2000, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board set a deadline: Achievement gaps would be closed within 15 years. A decade later, some progress has been made, but hitting all the goals by 2015 seems increasingly like a pipe dream — unless, of course, the culture of a country-sized state in which just 27 percent of the population has a college degree or certificate can be changed with a few million dollars.

Two years ago, Texas received $6 million from a federal College Access Challenge Grant. Education officials made the decision to put half of it toward a campaign to “develop a college-going culture in Texas,” as they put it, including not just four-year degrees but all post-secondary options. A request for proposals went out to agencies far and wide. Milkshake, which Jones says isn’t in the habit of bidding on state contracts, managed to beat out 10 other bidders by pitching “Generation TX,” a campaign geared toward converting students’ state pride into a massive push to become the highest-achieving generation in Texas history.   

Part of Milkshake’s argument was that a traditional marketing effort would not be possible with $3 million — less than half of what either gubernatorial candidate raised in the last reporting period alone. “We told them, ‘Even if you had the money and resources to do a traditional ad campaign, you won’t meet your goals,’” says Brian Auderer, a creative director at Milkshake. “You can’t multiply it times Texas.”

All eyes will be on the “Generation TX” movement when it kicks off in September in its pilot cities: San Antonio and Fort Worth. It’s difficult to overstate the height of the stakes when it comes to stepping up education in Texas, says Bill Hammond, the president of the Texas Association of Business. “Workforce is the key question facing Texas,” he says. “We have everything going for us, but the question mark is the quality of education at all levels and the output of that education.”

In a recently released progress report on its “Closing the Gaps by 2015” initiative, the Coordinating Board noted that, with only five years to go, the trend lines for achievement by African-American and Hispanic students — particularly males — are not climbing at a rate high enough to meet the target. The awards given in the workforce-friendly science, technology, engineering and math fields were described as “dismal.” They will have to more than double in six years, as will certifications for math and science teachers, which have been steadily sliding.  

Judith Loredo, who is overseeing the campaign in her role as assistant commissioner of P-16 initiatives at the Coordinating Board, knows how much work is left to be done, but she's confident that the marketing campaign is a step in the right direction. “I have not heard anyone say that the brand is wrong,” she says. “The question that always arises is, ‘How are you going to do this?’ And it may be tough in some communities.”

Particularly worrisome to state officials is the fact that only 4.4 percent of Texas’ Hispanic population participated in some form of higher education in 2009 — whereas the target for 2015 is 5.7 percent. The youngest cohorts of Texas students, the ones who will make up that future workforce, are in the majority-minority demographic, and many have the chance to be the first in their family to go to college.

“Many of these students and their parents are clueless” about how to apply to college, says Loredo, “but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to learn.”

Generation TX — or “Gen TX,” as Jones anticipates students will call it — won’t introduce any new programs, rules or requirements to address these specific issues. Rather, the brand, splashed on everything from skateboards to lanyards, will serve as a marker for places, people and programs that already exist that can provide support to students navigating the path of higher ed. Jacob Garcia, an academic advisor at Tarrant County College, says the main stumbling block for the students he works with is the many applications and forms required to gain access to higher education. He regularly goes out in the neighborhood in a mobile GO Center — the product of a previous Coordinating Boar campaign — to help students with that process. Once the new campaign kicks off, the vehicle will have a Generation TX logo on it.

Policymakers are largely united behind this effort to raise the profile of education; the campaign’s introductory video features a veritable who's who of Texas higher ed boosters, including the governor. But to some legislators, spreading the message isn’t the same as providing support. “If today we convince a low-income student that she can be the first in her family to go to college, tomorrow we can’t cut the financial aid she needs in order to succeed,” says state Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio. “If we are serious about putting more student on a path to a degree, we can’t ignore the financial pressures that derail so many smart, hard-working students.”

For all the questions about the lack of money or time, one of the biggest is if lightning can strike twice. Milkshake’s Livestrong campaign became a cultural staple of the last decade, in large part thanks to its trademark yellow wristbands. Expectations for Generation TX are high but not unrealistic. “If it’s not already important to people’s lives, then it’s not going to happen,” Jones says.

Loredo is betting that education meets that criteria. Asked if her department had a contingency plan for motivating Texas students in case Gen TX lanyards don’t take off in schoolyards like Livestrong wristbands, she says, “No, not right now. But I don’t see Generation TX going away.”

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