Why Universities HAVE to Prioritize Alumni Networks in an Outcomes Driven Market
At this point last year, higher education was forced to take a good, hard look at the elements of its work. Things that seemed critical in February were deemed to be excessive in August. And things that may have been an afterthought were suddenly thrust into the spotlight.
For every institution, the immediate need was the Class of 2020. Like a majority of students, this graduating class had pursued higher education in order to find a good job. Now those prospects were in danger, and institutions were scrambling to show that their degree still had value.
As institutions looked at the elements of the learner journey, they began to identify certain elements that higher education could no longer leave to chance. Internships, long-term projects, and other work-integrated experiences were identified as elements that schools needed to be more proactive in ensuring that all students had on their resumes. Colleges and universities are now getting closer to eliminating the randomness of whether or not students have these experiences.
Alumni Networks Are Next
But work-integrated experiences are only half of what Gallup has identified as crucial to creating student confidence and, ultimately, to demonstrating institutional value. The second half is relationships.
In a recent piece, author Julia Freeland Fisher argues that meaningful alumni networks is the next initiative that should not be left up to chance. As Director of Education at the Clayton Christensen Institute, Freeland Fisher has long been an advocate for the power of networks, particularly those made up of an array of both strong and weak ties.
Following a February report published by Freeland Fisher and co-author Richard Price, “Networks versus net worth: Expanding possibilities for alumni engagement” discusses why alumni networks have not yet been a major priority for institutions. As the title may suggest, fundraising has something to do with it.
And yet, the experience of the past 18 months has given higher education the opportunity to re-examine these priorities. Particularly in a market where consumers have other, cheaper options that could get them that good job.
Freeland Fisher remains optimistic:
Reasons to Prioritize Social Capital
The challenge, Freeland Fisher says, will be for schools to successfully prioritize creating these networks designed for student and alumni learner employability.
Frankly, institutions who need to support and expand endowments may be reluctant to make the change. But as we move closer to an in-person fall, the expectations of students have changed. Equitable access to resources will be something that students demand of their institution, including access to alumni.
For institutions not “hamstrung” with endowments, Freeland Fisher sees only blue ocean. Without the need to compete with advancement, institutions can maximize these networks to demonstrate ROI. “Particularly for institutions that serve primarily local populations, leaders could exert a competitive advantage by tapping alumni across their regional economy to play a variety of roles that boost pathways to jobs.”
Given that a vast majority of institutions don’t have endowments to manage, the ground swell of institutions strategically approaching the creation of alumni networks in this manner could alter how the industry as a whole approaches engagement.
It Benefits Colleagues Across Campus
In the February report, Freeland Fisher and co-author Price cite a Strada-Gallup study which found that only 9% of alumni find their alma mater’s network to be “helpful” or “very helpful.” Everyone from Advancement to the Career Center to the Admissions office will agree that there is a lot of room for improvement here.
Colleagues across those offices also stand to benefit from an improved network. A strong alumni network creates more powerful ambassadors to recruit new students to the institution. With as many as 80% of jobs coming through “who you know,” a strong alumni network is the most powerful tool a Career Center could have. And of course, this type of support and community for alumni only builds higher affinity and could lead towards increased philanthropic outcomes.
As the national conversation about the value of higher education continues and cheaper alternatives join the ecosystem, it has never been more important to prioritize career outcomes for students and alumni. With research that backs up the importance of connections to student confidence and employability, alumni networks are the next major piece of higher education ripe for innovation. This innovation can provide every student with the chance to build their social capital and eliminate the randomness from the process.
At PeopleGrove, we’re excited to be considered as a resource that helps “colleges and universities to enlist and organize alumni across myriad functions like student support, mentorship, career guidance, and work-integrated learning.” To learn more, visit us at peoplegrove.com/alumni-success.