Crane: Unfold Your Story

Grinnell College | Grinnell, IA

We don’t just have more students applying, but we have better-qualified students applying. We are saying “no” to students who we believe would be successful at Grinnell, which is always difficult, but it also allows us more flexibility in putting together the incoming class.  

Joe Bagnoli, Vice President for Enrollment


A liberal arts mecca and intellectual powerhouse on the Iowa prairie, Grinnell College had long owned a strong value proposition. The college’s renowned faculty members devoted themselves to teaching and mentoring undergraduates. Grinnell provided—and funded—wide-ranging study-abroad, internship, and research opportunities. The passionately questioning, intentionally created, self-governing community inspired fierce, lifelong love for Grinnell in the college’s world-changing alumni.

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Yet far too many Grinnell students did not choose Grinnell for these reasons. Rather, they were most strongly swayed by Grinnell’s exceptionally generous financial aid policy, which promised both to remain “need blind” and to meet 100 percent of demonstrated need. While this policy rightly enacted Grinnell’s social justice ethos, the college couldn’t sustain these policies as currently practiced. Grinnell needed to attract more full-pay students to ensure ongoing financial health—and the continuation of “need-blind.”



In the wake of a recent branding effort that failed to gain the community’s support, Grinnell’s messaging had retreated into a generic blandness. Rather than targeting the prospective students most likely to thrive at Grinnell, the college seemed to cast the widest possible net, pulling in too many students with no particular interest—other than financial—in this institution.

To allow Grinnell’s community to participate as fully as possible in our process, and to elicit the most authentic, widely shared sense of Grinnell’s identity, we spent several additional weeks conducting phone interviews, and visited campus a total of three times for extensive focus groups and workshops. Soon, a strong, consistent theme began to emerge. As several interlocutors put it:

A Grinnellian is a person who thinks otherwise.

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When we repeated this statement in formal and informal settings, we saw how joyously it resonated with Grinnellians themselves. That’s when we knew we had captured Grinnell’s metaconcept—the creative expression of the college’s authentic value proposition.

  • Received an institutional-record 7,368 applications in 2016 (up from 4,554 in 2012)
  • The pool of full-pay applicants grew substantially
  • Nearly 50% of applicants identified as students of color, reinforcing the College’s commitment to diversity
  • Admission rate dropped to 18%, allowing the College to truly sculpt the incoming class


With thinking otherwise as the metaconcept, the college’s communications began to proclaim and celebrate Grinnellians’ inimitable ways of perceiving, questioning, and engaging the world. The metaconcept allowed Grinnell to speak meaningfully to prospective students who already think otherwise, positioning the college as a profoundly intriguing alternative to other top liberal arts colleges and to honors programs at flagship state universities. Thinking otherwise also created a resonant shared identity to help unite current students, faculty, staff, and alumni even more powerfully.

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The program’s design combined subtly stirring prairie colors with unconventional presentations like Venn diagrams demonstrating Grinnellians’ individuality, and students’ letters to their pre-college selves. All told, thinking otherwise evoked the skeptical, hopeful, creative, generous, vigorous spirit that lives inside all Grinnellians.


Grinnell set an all-time record for applications in 2016, and, even more notably, received more applications from full-pay students, students of color, and high-achieving students than ever before. The new marketing program also aligned with a revamped (and highly attended) Open House experience (which in turn was reinforced on social media), creating a coordinated recruitment and enrollment strategy that yielded not only impressive numbers but one of the most highly sculpted classes in recent history.

Equally important, Grinnellians—present and future—have enthusiastically embraced the metaconcept and resulting materials.

A lot of positive buzz has developed out of the personalized Venn diagrams included in the admitted students’ packages. They have been a great hit! The other materials look very good as well. We’re confident this all will move us in the right direction. –Raynard Kington, President

Our admitted students love the personalized Venn diagrams showing how each of them “thinks otherwise.” They’re saying things like “I cried when I got mine” and “Grinnell really does its homework. –Jim Reische, former Vice President of Communications

You absolutely nailed it. Nothing expresses Grinnell as much as these pieces do. –alum

The design your team developed has garnered near-universal praise, which has allowed the website redesign to go smoothly. We’re all happy with the improvement. —Sarah Eagan Anderson, ’98, Director of Interactive Communications