With Hashtags and Free iPads, a Foundation Doubles Down to Get More Kids to College

I remember the first time I heard someone say college isn’t for everyone. It was just a few minutes before class, and my friends and I were talking about college applications. One of them started to complain about the application process, and our teacher chimed in, “Maybe college isn’t the right choice for you.” 

While I’m sure his comment was meant to be somewhat snarky, his words stuck with me. Growing up the way I did, I thought it sounded like pure crazy talk. Not going to college was never an option in my family. It was just the thing you did after high school, and I had never really stopped to consider that college was simply not in the future for millions of young Americans—some by choice, but too many by circumstance.

For the state of Idaho in particular, this combination of choice—fueled by mixed messages about the value of college; and circumstance—exploding tuitions and crippling debt—is contributing to what many see as the slow collapse of their economy. 

In 2010, Idaho ranked last in the nation in its college-going rate, and it's remained in the bottom five ever since. Idaho is also last in the nation in average wages, per-capita income and wage increases. Put these together, and a pretty grim picture emerges. 

As it turns out, low college attendance rates don't just mean less opportunity for individuals; entire regional economies can suffer. And both these concerns can be motivators for funders focused on getting more young people into college. 

We report extensively at IP on grantmaking for college readiness. And one thing that makes the area so interesting is the wide array of reasons that funders come to this space. Some look to fight inequality and revive the American Dream one young person at a time; others have an eye on competing with China in the global economy. Still other corporate funders are keenly focused on meeting future labor force needs, particularly in STEM areas. 

And other funders are thinking about improving opportunity in a single state. A case in point: the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation.

The Albertson family, founders of the supermarket chain of the same name, focused almost exclusively on improving education for Idahoans when establishing the foundation in 1966. In fact, in its 50 years, the foundation has given more than $600 million to Idaho’s communities and education systems. Run today by the Scott family, the Albertson Foundation continues to carry Jon and Kathryn Albertson's legacy and commitment to education, putting improved college attendance at the forefront of the foundation's mission over the last decade. 

Beginning in 2008, the Albertson Foundation started pumping out ads about the sad state of college attendance in Idaho. Over the course of five years, it poured $11 million into a campaign encouraging students to "go on" to college with strategically placed ads, university scholarships and grants to local schools. The foundation partnered with school districts, local universities, and legislators. But when the statewide rate of kids going to college actually declined from 2013 to 2014, the "Go On" campaign had officially failed.   

But the Albertson Foundation is not deterred.

Now, if five years and $11 million seems like a regrettable waste of time and money, it might be because we’re not used to hearing foundations admit defeat. But the foundation has clear objectives and goals that are easily measured—and now it has the wisdom that comes with experience, and a bright yellow deer sculpture to boot.

Of the "Go On" campaign, Nick Groff, spokesman for the Albertson Foundation, told the Inlander, "It talked to adults when we thought it was talking to students. It didn't work.”

So how do you get kids thinking about college when talking to them directly about it doesn’t seem to work? The Albertson Foundation is hoping the answer is to talk to them about anything else.

Enter the yellow deer, or more appropriately, buck. In an effort to "speak teen," the Albertson Foundation introduced a new pop-up marketing campaign called 'More In Store' that revolves around the hashtag "BuckThe Quo" (quo being shorthand for status quo). The campaign, which features booths in five different Idaho fairs throughout the state, is betting on social media and swag to get teens thinking about what they want their future to look like, and decide whether college can help them get there:

The teens visiting the booth at the fair can select a tennis-ball-style canister with inspirational messages on them. Messages like "Concentrated Nerve," "Raw Potential" and "Guts and Grit." Inside the canisters, they'll find sunglasses, stickers, an informational card, and — in two lucky canisters — a golden ticket that can be exchanged for an iPad.

Guided by a team of 20-something Idaho natives clad in jeans and leather jackets, teens visiting the booths are asked to write themselves an inspirational message based on their goals, which the Albertson Foundation will then ship back to them in a branded container. The hope is that by putting the power of messaging directly in teen's hands, they will self-generate attention to the campaign and give the campaign the feel of an organic grassroots movement:

Give kids phrases like #ICan and #BuckTheQuo and watch them post about it on Instagram. And then when they receive the package they sent themselves in the mail, they'll post about it again. If they win a laptop or iPad, they'll post about it again, and keep the buzz going. That’s the hope.

The foundation also announced plans to launch a complementary TV commercial campaign targeting a broader audience of Idahoans, featuring moments and experiences from the teens that visited the booths and participated in the campaign.

"What it comes down to is, we’re not giving up. Go On ended ... . We’re not going to meet that 60 percent [of graduates going to college] goal," Groff says. "For me, and our foundation, we can’t give up...If our students aren’t educated, our economy tanks."