By Youme Yai, Senior Analyst
The debate over the value of college has increasingly dominated media outlets. While these stories tend to focus on the perceptions of prospective students, our data suggests it’s not just enrollment offices that should be paying attention. Perceptions of value appear to have a lasting impact across the student lifecycle and influence student behavior long after graduation; alumni who believe the cost of their education exceeds the value are significantly less likely to be donors to their alma maters.
Eduventures’ Alumni Pulse survey, a study of more than 70,000 alumni, reveals that only 15% of alumni who believe the cost of their education exceeded the value made a gift to their alma mater last year. In contrast, 40% of alumni who perceive the value of their education as having exceeded the cost made a gift during the same period.
Rapidly rising tuition and student debt over the past decade have certainly contributed to this trend, but how much? To determine exactly how much diminished perceptions of degree value can be attributed to young alumni, we isolated our analysis to the population of all alumni that incurred between $20,000 and $30,000 in student loan debt. If you’ll recall, this range was identified in an earlier Wake-Up Call as the tipping point between student debt and giving. We then examined how value perceptions differ across generations by segmenting this population by graduation year (from recent graduates to those who graduated in 1973 and beyond).
We found that young alumni—defined as those who graduated within the last ten years for the purposes of this study—are significantly more likely to say their education costs exceeded the value received than any past generation (see Figure 2). One in five young alumni (or 22%) believes the cost of their education exceeded the value, nearly double the percentage of alumni from previous graduating years who share the sentiment (12%). Beyond the 10-year mark, however, perceptions of value hold remarkably steady across generations; an indication that, while negative perceptions of value may spike early, they will likely remain relatively sticky for many, if not most, alumni as they age.
On the one hand, the findings about young alumni are not entirely surprising. Between an increased tuition burden and stagnant wages, the last decade has provided new grads with a far less optimistic outlook of the future. However, the stability of these negative value perceptions among older alumni could spell trouble for development shops down the road. The first ten years after students graduate are crucial for establishing a habit of giving. If these younger graduates are not seeing the value of their degrees as new alumni, and if there is a larger percentage of them now than in the past, there may be far fewer alumni willing to make gifts later on.
The good news is that development shops can increase the perception of value among alumni by continuing to add value after students leave campus. Our data also shows that alumni, particularly young alumni, seek career development programming from their alma maters. Regional events, networking activities, and professional seminars top the list of ways in which alumni want to engage with their alma maters, outpacing traditional alumni offerings such as homecoming and reunions.
Additionally, alumni want to be a resource for future generations by participating in career development opportunities for students. Leveraging the generosity of your alumni and proactively offering the services and engagement opportunities they crave are effective first steps toward increasing alumni engagement and interest in giving back.