Alumni Engagement Research Yields New Insights

February 27, 2012

We've recently conducted several studies of alumni attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors for leading universities and professional schools. Although these studies are proprietary, the trends and patterns we’re discovering could be useful to the broader higher education community. Here’s a quick summary.

As part of our research into the full student life cycle — prospects, admits, current and graduating students, alumni, and donors — we help alumni affairs leaders and alumni associations understand their constituents through quantitative and qualitative research. Each alumni population is unique, as is each study we design, so what we learn in each case is different.

But taken together, our recent inquiries into alumni engagement represent an important body of knowledge with both strategic and tactical implications for the field. Here are a few broad insights from those studies.

  1. We found evidence that successful early engagement of alumni — especially in combination with a positive student experience — is associated with significant long-term benefits in donation. This pattern of alumni engagement appears to be similar across a wide variety of universities and graduate programs. It might be summarized as, If you get ’em early, you’ll have ’em later. Both ingredients (early engagement and a positive student experience) are important: they work together to foster later participation and donation by solidifying a positive experience and view of their relationship with the school, even after graduation. Alumni affairs professionals can have great impact on this by offering relevant, compelling opportunities for their newest alumni to engage with the school.

  2. We learned that alumni aren’t turning to social media as a replacement for other communication and participation channels (print, e-mail, and events); they’re expecting seamless integration across platforms. Alumni magazines still matter to them, as do local events, which are particularly useful in bringing young alumni and low-to-moderately engaged alumni further up the engagement ladder. Interestingly, many alumni are moving faster than the schools themselves in using social media: they’re developing their own social networks and using them to connect with fellow alumni. The challenge for colleges and universities is to find ways to assist and be part of those networking efforts — a very different goal than the traditional function of communicating to alumni. The cutting-edge leaders in alumni relations will be those who make all aspects of the alumni experience feel seamless, coordinated, and personalized: We know you, and we care about you as an alum.

  3. We found that alumni want more of what they experienced and cherished as students: intellectual engagement. They seek lifelong learning opportunities. They enjoy keeping up with faculty and their research. They want to connect with affinity groups — fellow alumni in their profession or industry, or those with similar passions. And not surprisingly given the current economy, they want long-term career services that support them throughout their working lives.

Slover Linett’s alumni research toolkit has expanded as we’ve conducted these recent studies. For one graduate institution, we developed an engagement index that combines a wide array of attitudes and behaviors into a single, nuanced metric of alumni engagement that can be tracked over time. For several universities, we’ve fine-tuned predictive models that help alumni affairs leaders understand what levers to pull to increase participation and donation in their populations. We’ve also integrated qualitative research methods with survey research to paint a more comprehensive, action-oriented picture of engagement.

We welcome your comments on these findings and your suggestions for future research directions. What are you most curious to know about alumni engagement? What patterns are you seeing in your own alumni data? Please contact Bill Hayward by email or at (773) 348-9215.

Category: Higher education

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