At 30,000 Feet All I See Are Alumni

Below is a guest post from Marguerite Dennis, who has been recruiting internationally for over 25 years, first at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. and then at Suffolk University in Boston, Massachusetts.  Those colleges and universities that have dedicated and active alumni certainly have a competitive advantage over those that don’t in terms of student recruitment and exploring new opportunities. 

graduation_000-300x259Over the course of my administrative career I had the opportunity to be responsible for not only the enrollment and retention of students but also for the alumni and fundraising programs at my university.  This “30,000 foot” view allowed me to integrate the enrollment and retention management systems with alumni and fundraising activities.  While this administrative responsibility is not for the faint of heart and certainly would not work at most schools, I would like you to read what I was able to integrate as Vice President for Development and Enrollment. Something you read may spark a discussion with other administrators at your college or university who share the responsibilities of enrolling a class, progressing that class from first to second year, cultivating enrolled students to become loyal and engaged alumni and setting the stage for successful fundraising campaigns.

Consider the following:

A school’s alumni program should begin before first year students register for classes.  I was fortunate to be a part of creating a convocation for all new and transfer students, parents, faculty and administrators.  All first year students, prior to the start of classes, were gathered into a large auditorium, black graduation-like gowns draped over their arms.  After short speeches by the president, deans and a graduate of the school, the students were asked to rise, take an oath and put the black gowns over their street clothes, symbolizing the time, in four years, when they would graduate and become alumni. The symbolism was not lost on anyone in the room, especially parents.  The students entered as individuals from all over the country and the world. They came in all shapes and sizes, wearing designer clothes and/or jeans. They all left looking alike with high hopes for a successful collegiate career.

Fast forward to the week of graduation. All of the seniors are formally inducted into the alumni association at a breakfast and given a certificate for one free continuing education course.  They have already received a list of all of the on-line courses they would be eligible to take at a discounted price. Again the symbolism: the first communication with graduates is not to ask for a donation but to give them a free or discounted course. All of the graduates are given the contact information for the alumni club in their part of the country or the world as well as a list of all former graduates in their area. They know the name of their class agent and have the contact information.

Deans and directors of admission, as well as student service deans, have the ability to inform the alumni office staff of those students who are actively involved in clubs and organizations. Does your alumni staff participate in enrollment activities organized by the dean of admission or the vice president of enrollment management? Does your school have an alumni staff member regularly attend student services events and programs?  These kinds of events have the potential to identify future class agents — students who will extend their school loyalty beyond the campus and help to create or populate alumni clubs.

This kind of cultivation should take place over a four year period, not at the time of graduation.  What it means is that administrators who do not usually cross paths or functions – -enrollment management, student services and alumni– meet regularly to discuss engaged students and plan synergistic events. For example: Can the alumni office provide the deans of admission with a list of graduates in the area who are willing to speak or meet with prospective parents and students? Are the results of a recent alumni survey available for prospective families to review online?  Is there a list of alumni who will provide internship opportunities to enrolled students? And how is all of that information looped back to the admission office?  If today’s prospective family is seeking a tangible return on their educational investment at your school, information from alumni is essential.

The following are some questions you may want to ask your alumni staff:

How does the alumni office communicate with the career counseling staff about the list of alumni internships opportunities available to them?

Does the alumni staff work with deans and faculty chairpersons to identify outstanding students in specific majors?

Does the alumni staff regularly meet with the athletic department to identify the most engaged student-athletes? Does the alumni office staff regularly attend athletic events?

Has the alumni staff conducted focus groups of junior and senior students to learn what alumni events would most likely appeal to young graduate?

It may be Facebook and Twitter today but what is the collaboration between the alumni office and the IT staff to identify the best way to technologically stay connected to graduates?

Does the alumni office staff conduct surveys of recent graduates? How is that information used? Who receives the results?

I was not enthusiastic when the president asked me to assume the responsibilities of alumni and fundraising and still maintain the overall responsibility for enrollment and retention. I thought I would be spread too thin and not be able to do a credible job.  What I learned is that if you have a solid marketing background you can market to both prospective students and alumni using similar skills.  Having “the whole ball of wax” certainly had its advantages. This administrative structure allowed for collaboration that did not previously exist.  It helped with fundraising. It centralized functions and contributed to a transparent and holistic management of students from pre-enrollment to post-graduation. It eliminated certain silos. It brought a disparate group of staff together to work cooperatively.

In an environment when presidents, provosts and chief financial officers are struggling to create new business models, it can only help to look at the current organizational chart with an eye to the future.  This is one suggestion. There are many others.

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