Alumni Engagement and the Community College
The level of alumni engagement at two-year colleges is well below that which is typically found at four-year institutions (Magaw, 2013; Skari, 2013; Theis, 2018). This is an issue that affects community colleges’ bottom line, the experience of currently enrolled students, and the connection between alumni and their institutions.
The lack of alumni engagement at two-year institutions is often the result of misconceptions about alumni loyalty (Skari, 2013). Those working in alumni engagement at the two-year college level have undoubtedly heard excuses for why their institution cannot dedicate time or resources to engaging with their alumni. A major reason for the differences in alumni giving between four-year and two-year institutions is that two-year institutions are simply not asking. Skari (2013) found that in 2011, four-year institutions asked for donations from 15 million alumni while two-year institutions only asked 600,000 alumni for donations. An exploratory study using a cross-sectional sample of community college alumni donors found that alumni who give to their four-year institutions are 3.9 times more likely to give to their two-year institutions if they are asked (Skari, 2013). The primary reason is that alumni from smaller institutions believe their educational experiences were more impactful; other reasons are that alumni from smaller schools often build tighter relationships with faculty and staff and that these institutions do a better job of continuing relationships after students leave their campuses (Martin et al., 2015).
A report released by the Century Foundation (Smith, 2019) found that most community colleges are underfunded compared to four-year institutions. Two-year institutions can no longer rely on state and federal aid to keep their books balanced. Although alumni can be a funding source, a solid alumni program will also focus on the numerous other advantages of building strong alumni relationships. For example, alumni can be champions for the college, serving as political advocates and apolitical recruiters for their institutions. In addition, alumni can serve as volunteers and as mentors for currently enrolled students (Weerts & Cabrera, 2015). To properly utilize alumni resources, institutions should ensure that they are using best practices for alumni engagement.
Alumni Engagement Best Practices
The following best practices were identified during interviews with representatives from six public two-year institutions located in five states in the eastern U.S. The colleges ranged in size from 7,000 to 68,000 students and included urban, suburban, and rural institutions. Interviews were held with directors of alumni relations, development, foundations, and alumni engagement, and a donor relations officer.
A 2015 CASE survey on benchmarking alumni relations (Paradise, 2016) defines alumni in one of three ways: individuals who have obtained a degree or certificate, individuals who have completed 12 or more credits with no credential requirement, or individuals who have taken at least one class at the institution. While the definition may vary from college to college, defining alumni as those who have obtained a degree or certificate can simplify alumni engagement efforts. Skari (2013) noted that one of the best predictors of giving by alumni is the attainment of an associate degree at the two-year level. Graduates have typically spent the most time at the institution and have the highest degree of connection to the campus and the college itself. Also, by focusing on a smaller pool of alumni, institutions can better use their alumni engagement offices, which are often one-person shops. Skari (2013) found that graduates of two-year institutions are more likely to donate time and money due to a bond that is created between students and the institution during a graduation ceremony; as seen through the lens of social exchange theory, the act of participating in the ceremony creates positive memories that alumni forever associate with their institution. Skari (2013) also posited that diplomas might serve as tangible reminders to alumni about their student experience. Muniz and O’Guinn (2001, as cited in Martin et al., 2015) similarly found that traditions and rituals such as graduation ceremonies “perpetuate the community’s shared history, culture, and consciousness” (p. 109).
Define Alumni Engagement
Many methods can be used to engage with alumni. Apart from the most common method of engagement—requesting donations during giving campaigns or other giving events (Paradise, 2016)—colleges use other methods to connect with alumni. Some institutions engage alumni as volunteers or mentors. Several of the institutions interviewed, for example, invite alumni back to campus to serve as career mentors for current students. Career mentor programs allow students to discover information about their chosen career fields that may not be found in a textbook. By identifying three distinct categories of alumni involvement—donor, volunteer, and mentor—institutions can effectively engage with alumni in a way that is comfortable for each individual alumnus.
Engage Future Alumni
Actively engaged students are more likely to become actively engaged alumni (Martin et al., 2015). There are various ways that institutions can engage their current students to develop engaged alumni. For instance, institutions could create a student ambassador club which would, ultimately, function as a feeder organization for an alumni association. Current students in this club could actively engage with alumni through donor campaigns and campus tours, and by reaching out to them at anniversary milestones for both the alumni and the institution. Institutions could also develop mentor programs that pair current students with alumni. These pairings could be based on career goals or mutually shared interests. Both methods create positive experiences and get students comfortable with the idea of alumni engagement.
Involve Alumni in Programming
Some of the institutional representatives interviewed stressed the importance of not merely creating alumni-only programs, but also involving alumni in events already occurring on campus, such as commencement, homecoming, and campus theater events. By incorporating alumni programming into existing campus programming efforts, the alumni engagement office will require less time and effort to do their jobs effectively. The goal of alumni engagement programming should be interaction between alumni and current students. Establishing these connections will make the experience more rewarding for both students and alumni. In addition, current students will be familiar with alumni engagement, and possibly, more likely to be involved as alumni themselves. Weerts and Cabrera (2015) found that student leaders of today are the alumni leaders of tomorrow.
Maintain Contact Information
Maintaining up-to-date contact information is often difficult for two-year colleges. Institutions struggle with this for various reasons, including limited personnel to keep the contact list updated and little effort by alumni to update their information. To ensure physical addresses are updated, alumni offices should rely on both the U.S. Post Office's address verification system and third-party vendors. Utilizing third-party vendors will allow smaller-staffed alumni offices to focus on content and actual engagement. While institutions will pay a financial price for this service, the return on investment is usually well worth the expenditure. LinkedIn was the social media resource most often cited for keeping email information updated. Alumni are much more likely to engage with their institutions through this site due to its career networking aspect. In addition to keeping track of current email addresses, LinkedIn allows institutions to update career information for alumni. This information will assist with creating mentorships and career networking opportunities between alumni and current students.
Create an Alumni Association
While it is possible to engage alumni effectively without creating an alumni association, an association puts most of the engagement work into alumni hands. Research has also shown that membership in an alumni association increases chances of alumni donating time or money (Skari, 2013). A small alumni association could be created with three serving alumni association board members under the chief development officer's direction. These board members would help to organize mentor programs, volunteer activities, and other programming. For best results, institutions should enroll all graduating students into the alumni association automatically at no cost to the students. Many institutions are moving away from charging fees for their alumni associations, as fees are generally not considered a viable funding source (Paradise, 2016).
Much of the literature examines alumni engagement through the lens of four-year institutions. More research is needed to assess alumni engagement at the community college level. Given that over 44 percent of undergraduate students were enrolled at two-year institutions in the 2017-2018 academic year and that 49 percent of students who completed a four-year degree in 2015-2016 had attended a two-year institution in the previous decade (Community College Research Center, n.d.), there are ample reasons to suggest alumni engagement at the two-year level has room for growth in the future. Alumni engagement can vary from one institution to the next, as what works well at one institution may not be effective at another. Institutions and those on the front lines of alumni engagement need to look inward and experiment to find what works best for them.
Alumni should be appreciated as a strategic resource. Two-year institutions can no longer assume that their alumni will tell them “no” when asked for time and money donations. Exploratory studies have demonstrated that this is not the case, and that two-year alumni are willing to engage (Skari, 2013; Theis, 2018). To be effective at alumni engagement, institutions need to build connections with their students early, and strengthen those connections over time. Active and effective alumni engagement is possible at the community college level with some effort on the institution's part; the results are an improved alumni experience, an enhanced college reputation, and an increased bottom line.
Community College Research Center. (n.d.). Community college FAQs. https://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/Community-College-FAQs.html
Magaw, T. (2013). Community colleges extend reach, hands; two-year schools are amping up efforts to reach alumni for funds, engagement. Crain's Cleveland Business, 34(21).
Martin, M. C., Moriuchi, E., Smith, R. M., Moeder, J. D., & Nichols, C. (2015). The importance of university traditions and rituals in building alumni brand communities and loyalty. International Academy of Marketing Studies Journal, 19(3), 107-118.
Paradise, A. (2016). Benchmarking alumni relations in communities: Findings from a 2015 CASE survey [White Paper]. Council for Advancement and Support of Education.
Skari, L. A. (2013). Community college alumni: Predicting who gives. Community College Review, 42(1), 23-40. https://doi.org/10.1177/0091552113510172
Smith, A. A. (2019, April 25). Report: Community colleges are significantly underfunded. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2019/04/25/report-community-colleges-are-significantly-underfunded
Theis, J. (2018). Building it forward at community colleges; Staying connected to alumni through civic engagement. Diversity & Democracy, 21(2).
Weerts, D. J., & Cabrera, A. F. (2017). Segmenting university alumni using a person-centered methodology. International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, 22(3), e1577. https://doi.org/10.1002/nvsm.1577
Jeff Hooks is Executive Director, Campus Life, at Southwestern Michigan College in Dowagiac, Michigan, and a student in Ferris State University’s Doctorate in Community College Leadership program.
Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.