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Future of Higher Education

Leveraging Alumni Relations to Strengthen Student Success

In an era where more students are disengaged from the classic “campus experience,” leveraging alumni relations can enhance both student success and institutional vitality.


David Bass

Executive Director of Philanthropic Governance, Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges

In light of the multi-thousand, million-, and billion-dollar fundraising campaigns, and the need among all but the wealthiest institutions to grow philanthropic support, alumni relations programs are often seen as less relevant to campus priorities. In an era when increasing numbers of students are enrolled in online programs, and students who choose traditional residential experiences are more likely to graduate with significant debt, alumni relations programs focused on sustaining ties to campus or trading on alumni gratitude may fail to engage recent graduates. 

Even recent graduates who were on campus are more likely to disperse geographically and pursue postgraduate studies, eroding participation in campus and community-based events. Social media provides alumni with real-time updates on classmates’ personal and professional lives, no magazine or reunion required. Some see evidence of these trends in declining alumni “participation rates,” i.e., the alumni who make financial contributions. 

Such attitudes fail to take into account the critical role alumni relations can play in supporting student success and, in that way, sustaining and growing the still-significant pipeline of alumni giving. 

Enabling student success entails more than just ensuring students earn a degree. It means equipping them to secure a meaningful job, succeed in the workplace, and become an engaged citizen. Not surprisingly, such support also yields more engaged alumni likely to return that support as volunteers and donors. 

This is especially true of first-generation students, who are more likely to struggle with financial or other impediments to degree completion, and, once graduated, may face challenges navigating the job market and workplace compared to students who come from families where white-collar professions are the norm.

Career guides

Alumni can provide graduates with support, opportunities, and professional capital needed to succeed in rewarding career paths. Mentoring programs pair up professionally established alumni with current students and recent graduates, helping them navigate through their degrees and into careers. These relationships can be particularly valuable for first-generation students, students of color, women seeking roles in male-dominated fields, and others who are underrepresented in the professions to which they aspire. 

Engaging alumni as guest speakers in classes, partners in capstone projects, or in internship programs afford similarly valuable opportunities for mentorship and modeling of professional success. Alumni can provide invaluable professional perspectives when engaged to review resumes and conduct mock interviews. 

Finally, networking events, alumni career directories, and digital networking platforms afford recent graduates opportunities to connect with potential employers, and provide established alumni with valuable access to prospective job candidates with known educational backgrounds and experience. 

Fundraising pipeline

Alumni engaged in meaningful and rewarding roles, especially ones that put them in touch with students and recent alumni, are, in turn, more likely to make philanthropic contributions. Of the $49.5 million raised by colleges and universities last year, alumni directly contributed over 22 percent of the total. If you add in alumni giving via foundations and donor-advised funds, the proportion of giving by alumni significantly increases. Much of this giving was designated for student financial aid programs. 

College sports have been called the “front porch” of higher education, and for many alumni, that porch, in the form of tailgates, homecomings, and watch parties, remains an important space of engagement. Alumni can, however, also be cheerleaders in ways that speak more closely to the core mission and value proposition of postsecondary education. 

As part of an integrated advancement strategy, alumni relations will always invite alumni to the front porch of sports and the backyard barbecues of homecoming and reunions, but it should also engage alumni as advocates in the larger community and as champions for our nation’s students. 

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