By Cara Quackenbush, Vice President, Research
Homecoming. Reunions. Alumni day at the ballpark. Nearly every college campus has its own set of annual alumni engagement events that serve as the building blocks for successful gift cultivation. Some have been part of the fabric of our alumni relations programs for so long they have become sacred. The question is, “Are these programs worth the investment in a rapidly changing higher education environment?”
The engagement formulas in place on many college campuses across the country have supported development efforts well for years, maybe even decades. However, over the course of time, the value proposition of higher education has changed:
- Career preparation outranks core academics as the primary enrollment driver for prospective students.
- STEM disciplines outpace all others in market growth.
- An unprecedented number of alumni now say that the cost of their college education exceeds the value.
Eduventures data clearly shows that these trends are impacting alumni engagement efforts.
Data from the 2015 Eduventures Alumni Pulse Survey shows a widening gap between the engagement opportunities that institutions offer alumni and what those alumni want. For the third year in a row, we asked thousands of alumni across the country what kinds of activities they attended over the past year. We also asked them what activities they would prefer to attend in the coming year. The difference was stark.
When asked what activities they participated in over the past year, alumni were most likely to attend traditional alumni events like athletic events and reunions. However, when we asked which activities they would like to be more engaged with in the future, a different pattern emerges. Campus visits, reunions, and homecoming drop off the list, replaced by networking events, professional seminars, and career development activities for current students. Regional events climb to the number one spot and remain in the top five, along with only athletic events.
Clearly, career-related programming—whether benefitting an alumni directly or benefiting current students—is top of mind for today’s alumni. Even the surge in regional events could be interpreted as career-related in part, providing opportunities for alumni within regions to connect. Notably, this trend has remained remarkably sticky, with nearly identical results since 2013.
While it’s exciting to watch alumni flock back to campus to reunite with classmates or celebrate a class anniversary, these traditional gatherings are not the only tools advancement teams can use to generate widespread engagement. The top five events alumni identify for greater engagement provide a window into what they most value about their relationship with the institution and what may be either missing or underrepresented in your engagement playbook. Data like this indicates that it is time for many colleges to step back and reevaluate where they are investing their engagement dollars.
What’s the best way to engage today’s alumni? Help them find a job. Alternatively, provide resources that will help them further their careers. For alumni who are already successful in their careers, provide them the opportunity to help another student find a job or prepare for a career. Thinking anew about engagement tactics will ensure that your program stays highly relevant into the foreseeable future.
Beyond developing more strategic partnerships with career services and enrollment management, here are five ways to get started:
- Ask your alumni. When was the last time you conducted an alumni survey or another alumni attitudes study? Have you given your alumni the opportunity to tell you what they want? Frequent alumni studies enable institutions to gain an understanding of what they value and evaluate the effectiveness of current programming.
- Assess current engagement opportunities. How has each engagement tactic used over the past several years trended in terms of participation? How do you evaluate the ROI of alumni engagement events? If you haven’t done so recently, take an inventory of the engagement tactics you are using today and make adjustments as needed based on market demand.
- Adjust event marketing. Perhaps your institution is already doing all of these things well. If this is the case, the question then becomes, “Do your alumni know what opportunities are available to them?” Perhaps adjusting the message or marketing channel can help get the word out.
- Explore alternative segmentation methods. How does your organization segment its alumni population to strategically target engagement opportunities? Beyond graduation year or type of degree, many organizations are successfully developing behavior and values-based segmentation strategies.
- Evaluate your data and technology strategy. How are you using CRM, data analytics, and marketing vendors to enable more strategic and effective ways of gathering, displaying, interpreting, and applying alumni data? Mining social media streams, for example, is becoming a critical component of any broad-based engagement strategy.
This analysis is based on Eduventures Alumni Pulse Survey. If you are interested in learning more about participating in this survey, please contact John McInerny at firstname.lastname@example.org