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Alumni Mentoring Programs

Why Universities Need to Launch a Community for Mentored Learning and What to Consider When Getting Started “…People Who Know […]

11 min read

Why Universities Need to Launch a Community for Mentored Learning and What to Consider When Getting Started

“…People Who Know More Than You Do…”

Mentorship can sometimes be such an ominous word.

For the mentor, it implies a host of heavy responsibilities — someone’s failure or success may depend on the guidance you give them!

For the mentee, it suggests something of a “forced friendship,” where they are paired with an adult they may have absolutely no connection with. 

Personally, we gravitate more towards the idea of mentored learning as defined by Randy Bass, Vice President of Strategic Education Initiatives at Georgetown University. In a 2014 TED Talk, he said that:


It’s the simplicity of the idea that is so attractive. To participate in mentored learning, one must surround themselves with people who are smarter than they are, particularly in a field that they’re eager to learn more about. If you have access to those people and ask for their feedback, you are growing not only your knowledge but the valuable social capital needed to be successful in getting a job. 

In his 2014 talk Vice Provost Bass predicted that in the 2020s, mentored learning would be one of only two things that universities do that is distinctly different from other educational opportunities in the global learning ecosystem. Well, we now find ourselves in the 2020s and dealing with a worldwide event that has accelerated this change in higher education. If universities are to remain relevant in this environment, it’s time to lean into mentored learning as a core differentiator in the marketplace.

Universities also have to recognize that providing these mentored learning opportunities requires intentionality and strategy to make sure that it’s available to everyone. A long term impact of Covid-19 will be that we can no longer rely on campus to surround students with those who know more than they do — even when we return to that campus. Pre-pandemic, research was already demonstrating how few students actually took advantage of the “relationship-rich” opportunities that lead to success — especially first-gen students or those from disadvantaged backgrounds.          


Not Sold? Here Are Three More Reasons

#1: Students Need Jobs

Aside from growing as a person and becoming an educated participant in a democratic system (and believe me, with B.A.s in Theology and History, I love talking about the value of a liberal arts education), students go to college to get a job. And yes, they will lay some blame on their institution if they don’t get one right away.

Social capital plays an enormous role in getting that good job upon graduation. There is a “hidden job market” that exists in the workforce and finding that market requires a large amount of social capital. The more students can build a wide array of strong and weak ties, the more likely they are to gain access to this market. 

Institutions are only just now realizing that there is a cost to the institution itself if their students are not employed upon graduation. As the months go by with a diploma in hand and no employment, graduates’ long-term earnings are impacted more and more. Those who are underemployed face those lasting consequences as well. We’re risking creating generations of students who lack confidence in their ability to be successful, earn below what they are capable of, and thus say their degree was not worth the cost. A disastrous recipe for future fundraising prospects.    


#2: It’s the Magic of College

Thinking about our own experience, how many of us changed courses during our college days because of a conversation with a professor or an alum? Or better yet, how many of us have had students come back to us to say that they themselves changed course because of a conversation with us?

This mentored learning is what comes to mind for so many of us when we think back to our college days. Instead of a specific formula or framework we learned in a class, we recall the networking event where we learned about a particular career path from a recent graduate. Or found that we were actually qualified for our dream entry role by engaging in a work-based project.

Colleges and universities need to refocus on the student experience and truly understand where the lasting value is in the journey. Relationships built through mentored learning is a vital piece of that magic.


#3: Alumni Are Asking to be the People “Who Know More”

Here’s the good news. We really don’t have to go far to find those willing to share their expertise with students. 

Alumni survey after alumni survey have shown that constituents want the opportunity to mentor students. “Mentorship opportunities” is often cited as an area where alumni associations don’t deliver on alumni expectations. With many alumni associations counting tens or even hundreds of thousands of members, capturing this goodwill should be a top priority. If not, alumni relations risks under delivering on expectations and losing valuable members. 

These conditions could not be more suited to building an alumni mentoring program. A desperate need and high demand on the side of the knowledge-seeking students with a willing and able supply of experts on the side of the knowledge-sharing alumni. This is the perfect environment to intentionally and strategically implement an ecosystem of mentored learning.


Five Things to Consider When Launching the Ecosystem 

So what needs to go into your strategy when creating this ecosystem? Here are five considerations that will create the most effective alumni mentoring program:

#1: Opportunity for an Array of Connections    

Good networks are composed of strong and weak ties. A strong tie would be someone on whom you rely on frequently for advice or guidance. Basketball Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal refers to his strong ties like a “board of advisors” that he could bounce ideas off of and when they called him he always picked up the phone. A weak tie may be a networking connection or someone you meet at an event, but not someone you would “ask to borrow money or ask to watch your dog,” according to Julia Freeland Fisher, Director of Education at the Clayton Christensen Institute.    

Students need to cultivate both in order to be successful in the long run. Strong ties can help guide thinking while weak ties provide access to open doors and job opportunities. Effective programs will have multiple ways that learners can connect to knowledge-sharers: from simple networking to formalized mentorship programs and everything in between. 

#2: Options for Alumni to Engage How They See Fit

On the other side of the coin, alumni need to feel comfortable giving of the time they feel they have. Many alumni may shy away from joining an ecosystem like this because they are too busy (and who can blame them). Make sure your program allows for alumni to have options in how much they are available. For example, give them the option of setting limits on the number of connections they are willing to make per month. Of course, most often, you’ll find that alumni are willing to manage their own time and take an unlimited number of requests, but the mere fact that you ask will set them at ease and let them know that you are taking their needs in account. 

Additionally, if alumni are willing to form strong ties with students, provide them with the mechanism through which they can do that. Building a time-delineated, goal-oriented mentorship program can give them that opportunity.  

#3: Set Expectations

Even if you are not building a goal-oriented “formal program,” you still have to set expectations for anyone participating in the ecosystem. For students, be transparent about what the intention of this community is. Put this concept in front of them and say “you absolutely need to do this or you risk not making the most of your time with us.” We need to eliminate any hesitation and be more active in telling students why this community exists. The consequences of not doing that are too dire.

For alumni, the message is different but the urgency is not. Put out a call to action to alumni about this need. This is something that they say they want so why not get this in front of every contactable alumni — “you asked, we answered.” 

In that message, let them know what you expect from them in the ecosystem. How many times have you reached out to someone on LinkedIn only to get sponsored messages and bots filling your inbox instead of the replies you were hoping for? Alumni need to be active members of this process and commit to being responsive if universities are to provide this distinct experience. 


#4: If You Can’t Track It, Did It Even Happen?

It’s a data-driven world, and while a community for mentored learning sounds too qualitative to put numbers behind, it doesn’t have to be. Find ways to measure not just the quantity of connections being formed, but also the quality. Large numbers of participants is great, but if neither side is finding value in the connections, then those numbers aren’t driving towards the goal of the community. 

These metrics are also important to ensure that the expectations you set for both sharers and seekers are being met. Can you identify how many requests from student to alumni went unanswered? Do you have mechanisms in place to nudge those alumni to respond? Being able to track and understand such data will help identify ways to further improve the community. 


#5: Engagement is Great, Outcomes are Better

These alumni mentoring programs exist for a reason. Seeing large numbers of connections with excellent quality ratings and high response rates is a great feeling. You’ve put a program in place that has given students access to “those that know more than they do.” But what did it do for the student? What did it do for the alumni? How will you identify these outcomes?

When building the community, these are crucial questions to answer. It starts with identifying the outcome you want for each participant. For example, you may decide that by engaging alumni in such a way, they’ll be more likely to donate philanthropically. By mapping the engagement data you see from a mentored learning community to your system of record, you’ll be able to identify just how meaningful this data is to your desired outcome. 


Present at Every Stage of the Student Journey

Put yourself in the shoes of a high school student evaluating their higher education options. As Randy Bass predicted, colleges and universities are being “outcompeted on cost on anything that looks like the…delivery of information.” This student now has options (training programs, boot camps, etc.) beyond a degree that could lead to a fulfilling and successful career. 

  • How will you convince them that college is the right decision for them? 
  • How will you show them that in both the long and short term, the experience that you offer not only pays off but provides a constant return on their investment?

You show them what makes you distinct. You put your community in front of them and introduce them to the idea of mentored learning. You tell them that if they invest in you, you have tens of thousands of people willing to invest in them. That exact community carries them through their entire student journey and life design — providing guidance on their academic path, helping them explore and prototype careers, and eventually launching them into the workforce confident in their success and excited to pay it forward.

In this environment, technology provides the mechanism behind the delivery. It allows you to build a place where the tens of thousands can gather and explore. It also ensures that access is available to every student rather than those already familiar and comfortable with the inner workings of college life.

At PeopleGrove, this is our approach to success at every stage, and why we feel it’s so important. We’re proud to help all our university partners create these mentored learning communities that impact the student journey. 

To learn more about how we’re helping universities deliver what is distinct about them in this marketplace, take a tour of our platform by visiting