During my studies, I received a login into an alumni directory called “TigerNet”. As with many directories, it was a glorified yellow page. Granted, it provided valuable contact information for thousands of alumni. The design and functionality, however, left the hardest part – making actual connections – to the ability of the students to ingratiate themselves with cold calls and emails. Such reach rarely resulted in the establishment of authentic relationships.
Fast forward to today and alumni connections are getting updated thanks to a range of more dynamic tools that put alumni at the core of the college student experience. In a report released last week, my colleague Richard Price and I document how a variety of tools are introducing alumni to more active mentoring roles, to provide career advice and inspiration, improve course persistence, and both experiential and work-based learning to allow and outside of the classroom. None of these roles for alumni are new per se. However, emerging resources can help post-secondary institutions cope with the still major challenge: ensuring that students connect authentically and at scale with alumni in each of these dimensions.
Alumni networks are part of the list of goods that colleges and universities sell to students. And for good reason: an estimated half of all jobs come via networks and connections. According to a Strada Gallup alumni survey, however, only 9 percent of university graduates said their alumni network was helpful in the job market. These amazing statistics say a lot about how badly most institutions actually do when it comes to systematically connecting alumni and students. Innovations in this area are long overdue.
The tools we found from our research help take the chance out of chance encounters between students and alumni by creating more frequent and deliberate touchpoints throughout a student’s journey and by scaling the number of ways alumni engage can. None of them were specifically designed as “alumni engagement”, but they have the potential to revolutionize the way institutions manage alumni relationships while strengthening the networks available to students. (Note: we have no financial relationship with any of them.)
Three special innovation opportunities stand out:
1. Helping less wealthy institutions to scale networks.
Although the engagement of alumni is a central characteristic of brand institutions, less affluent colleges and universities operate small to nonexistent foundations and, for their part, primarily use far fewer resources to involve alumni. According to Chian Gong, a partner in edtech investment firm Reach Capital, these colleges make up the bulk of the subject: “There are only 4,000 higher education institutions in the country, and only about 700 of them now have significant foundations or alumni initiatives. ” She said.
Entrepreneurs repeated this observation. “In the most established alumni networks there is, so to speak, ‘liquidity’. Alumni take part. They help each other, ”said Andrew Margie, CEO and founder of Alumnifire, an alumni networking platform sold to high schools and post-secondary institutions. “But most schools and institutions don’t have anything nearby. These [less wealthy] Schools begin to rethink their model at the DNA level when they realize, “Of course we have an alumni network … but why doesn’t it matter?”
For these institutions, the emergence of affordable tools that are specifically aimed at promoting the connection rather than soliciting donations can help create this kind of liquidity in less established networks. Troy Williams, executive director of University Ventures (whose portfolio includes PeopleGrove, a platform that helps institutions organize mentoring and career relationships) said, “To survive, non-elite schools, especially those with small foundations, must survive prove that they are instrumental in helping their students find work. They need to improve their willingness to work, and that includes involvement in alumni networks. “
For example, Margie’s company has partnered with Sweet Briar College, which has faced financial difficulties in recent years, to facilitate networking support, including counseling, for alumni-to-student and alumni-to-alumni careers , Mentoring, internships and jobs. Sweet Briar managed to launch the platform in less than a week, and within six months the college had reached a ratio of 12 volunteer alumni providing professional assistance to each senior graduate.
In other words, alumni of less selective institutions can continue to contribute to their alma mater’s bottom line by playing a key role in helping students with their careers. For institutions like Sweet Briar, adopting low-cost technologies that foster deeper connections between students and alumni could cement their ability to stay competitive – and stay afloat.
2. Create experiences in which authentic connections take root.
For any institution, wealthy or not, tools that focus on alumni-student relationships can develop experiences beyond general contact. Some specialize in maintaining certain types of connections so students don’t have to call alumni for help or spend time asking vague questions in informational interviews.
For example, discussing a work project with an alumnus can add substance to the interaction and build trust. “Imagine a conversation with an alumni mentor that goes beyond the performance of the soccer team and the local bars. Imagine a conversation that focuses on a new core, this project that you are working on together. That can be real, ”said Jeffrey Moss, founder of Parker Dewey, a micro-internship marketplace that offers students short-term, paid, professional projects. The company encourages alumni professionals who work with these employers to extend micro-internships to students from their alma mater.
Other providers, such as Mentor Collective, a platform that helps institutions match students with senior students and alumni as mentors, take that focus on connection a step further by providing training support for alumni mentors. “Not every volunteer is willing to be a mentor, especially an alumni mentor serving vulnerable students,” said Jackson Boyar, co-founder and CEO of Mentor Collective. “To create a foundation for authentic engagement that goes beyond transactional coffee chat, Mentor Collective offers expert-led training workshops to each mentor before they are brought together.” These workshops provide guidance on best practices in mentoring such as: B. Active listening, asking open-ended questions, and instilling trust and connections between cultural differences.
Boyar sees this as a way to ensure that alumni connections actually lead to better student outcomes. “While this approach can stamp out some less engaged mentors, it empowers those who are really engaged to have an even greater impact,” he said.
3. Coordination of common value between the institutions.
Another, albeit emerging, trend is the use of technology to facilitate networking between institutions. This begins on marketplaces for experiential and work-integrated learning. According to Dana Stephenson, co-founder and CEO of Riipen, a platform that helps faculty incorporate real-world projects – many of which are alumni – into their classrooms, cross-fertilization between alumni networks doesn’t happen overnight. “When we started Riipen, some people didn’t want to share. It was really difficult to convince some schools to share their networks and show people how open educational resources can be mutually beneficial, ”he said.
To overcome this, Riipen had to show institutions that opening up their networks would be a win-win situation for both alumni and their current students. Students can draw on a wider range of experts and alumni who offer projects that better suit their needs and interests. And alumni are more likely to quickly align their time-sensitive projects, as they can reach students on a broader scale – both from their alma mater and from other institutions. “We’ve reached a tipping point where our customers stopped worrying about scarcity and were more willing to move on to the open ecosystem,” said Stephenson.
Another initiative, Bridges Alliance, run by PeopleGrove, plans to follow suit. The company’s “Bridges” tool helps institutions organize work experiences for alumni in their existing communities. The company is now working on bringing together institutions that use the tool in an alliance in order to achieve similar network effects with its customers. In this way, students can access opportunities from alumni of their institutions as well as from others.
“Hiring freezes and the retirement of jobs and internships are just a few of the challenges faced by today’s students,” said Adam Saven, co-founder and CEO of PeopleGrove. “We need to harness the wealth of knowledge, innovation, social capital and skills that reside in our collective networks and employers’ ecosystems to empower students.”
It is worth watching these efforts as they could turn the otherwise zero-sum nature of exclusive alumni networks on its head.
As early alumni directories showed, technology alone is not a silver bullet for engaging alumni or ultimately improving student-alumni connection rates. Colleges face innumerable tradeoffs when it comes to how much resources to devote to these efforts in the first place. People with sizeable foundations have difficulty attracting alumni to donate – their financial capital – or their time – their social capital. In other words, the innovation opportunities and constraints on introducing new technologies look different across the room.
In order for an industry to be under pressure to prove its worth, institutions benefit from innovations that not only unleash the assets of the alumni, but also their networks. And that starts with not just providing contact information, but also making meaningful connections.