What do Lady Gaga, Mark Zuckerberg, and Sergei Brin each have in common? The Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth.
Each summer, for nearly three decades, some of the world’s brightest young minds, ages 8-18, gather on college campuses across the country to study everything from cryptography to aeronautical engineering. The experience, for most of these academically talented children, is one of the most profound academic and social experiences they’ll ever know. Indeed, for many of them, it’s the first time to find out that “there are other kids who think like me.”
Unfortunately, with the financial crisis, the Great Recession, and a growing NCLB-induced national weariness regarding standardized testing, enrollment for the Center’s annual Talent Search had fallen dramatically from its peak years. Despite extensive national outreach efforts—and an increased pool of financial aid—this essential pipeline to enrollment in the coveted summer programs continued to deteriorate. Leadership wanted to know how to increase Talent Search, summer programs, and online enrollment, while quietly cultivating greater alumni engagement. For us, the challenge was not only daunting, but also exciting.
Immersing ourselves in the culture and community of some of the world’s most gifted young minds at campuses and alumni gatherings from coast-to-coast—we found student affinity for the program was far deeper than many ever imagined. However, their excitement was not translated into action, as CTY’s communications materials were aimed almost entirely at adults. When interviewing parents of CTY students and alumni, we discovered that it was their children who often drove the decision process in selecting summer activities. Thus, by targeting more of its communications materials toward the children themselves, CTY could strike a stronger emotional chord with prospective students. Talent Search could become a means to the Summer Programs endgame, rather than an outcome by itself.
Following a complete rebranding effort, which sought to combine the irreverent nature of the students’ self-proclaimed “culture” with the global prestige of Johns Hopkins University, participation in its summer and online programs has reached new levels of success. One can only wonder whether the next Lady Gaga is a fourteen-year-old music prodigy studying Shakespeare this summer at CTY’s Carlisle, Pennsylvania campus—or, the next Zuckerberg is an 11-year-old scholarship student taking cryptography in Palo Alto.