Q&A: What’s Happening With College Alumni Engagement

How college graduates engage — or don’t engage — with their alma mater can be a sign of a school’s health and value, observers say. Alumni engagement takes various forms and benefits institutions and current students in many ways, from informal mentoring to multimillion-dollar donations.

The Council for Advancement and Support of Education, a nonprofit association of education institutions, reported in February 2024 that financial giving to U.S. colleges and universities reached $58 billion in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2023. Although that amount declined 2.5% from the prior year, when it hit a record high, such voluntary philanthropic support has trended up in recent years — even as numerous opinion polls signal that much of the American public is losing trust in the value of a college education.

The recent levels of financial giving “should be a source of celebration and pride,” Sue Cunningham, president and CEO of CASE, says in the survey report. “That so many individuals and organizations support colleges and universities indicates nationwide recognition of the immense value these institutions provide through transforming lives and society. Recent headlines too frequently cast a negative light on the value of institutions of higher education. However, the trust demonstrated by this level of philanthropy tells a different story. Kudos to the many who choose to give and to those working in institutions that educate future generations and undertake research to save and improve lives.”

Cara Giacomini, vice president of data, research and technology at CASE, talks about alumni engagement in the U.S., its connection to institutional advancement and why maintaining connections between graduates and their alma maters matters. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: For many people, college alumni engagement means things like giving money or returning to campus for homecoming or commencement activities. What is a fuller picture of alumni engagement?

At CASE, we tend to think about alumni engagement in four main categories, which starts to get to a larger picture. It really extends into experiential, which includes all the different events and engagements that people have with an institution — a variety of activities that bring people together either virtually or in person. We also look at volunteering, and that can be anything from student mentoring to career coaching, and committee involvement. Of course, we track philanthropy as well, giving of money to support the institution as one of those main categories where people are engaged. Also, looking at communications, active engagement with communicating with the institution. Not just opening an email or reading an email, but taking actions such as responding to a survey, evaluating a program or event and ensuring your institution can reach you when your contact details change. We’re also seeing a lot of different pieces starting to bubble to the surface of ways that people are engaged, and that can be support for student recruitment, career placement, advocacy for the institution. Sometimes we are seeing alumni key to corporate partnerships that evolve, and investments in research and development. This all points to alumni engagement really being about building a much larger community and keeping that community active well past graduation.

Q: Based on CASE’s data and research, what trends do you see in alumni engagement and what could they mean?

We’ve been tracking alumni engagement data for five years now, and this has been a new endeavor for some of our institutions because it means bringing in data from a variety of different sources. Not just tracking what people give to the institution — where we tend to have really good records because they’re required for tax purposes — but then thinking about how are we learning to track where someone shows up for an event, how they’re volunteering, and how that happens across an entire institution can sometimes take a while to assemble. One of the big things we’ve noticed is a real outgrowth in collaboration. Also, it is not an expectation over the years that their interest will remain fixed to the department where they got their degree. They’re engaging in different ways based on their evolving interests. A lot of institutions are starting to think about engagement in their campaigns. When institutions do very large campaigns to raise money for new initiatives and new causes, we’re starting to see engagement goals entering those campaigns because people understand that that engagement is really vital to the long-term success of the institution.

[READ: What Is an Endowment for a College?]

Q: What’s the historic relationship between alumni engagement and institutional advancement and how has it changed?

One of the ways we talk about this work at CASE is thinking about integrated advancement. We think of advancement as having multiple aspects. There is the development office that is raising money, but there is also the alumni relation component. Even if there are different organizational structures, the two pieces are often really working together, along with marketing and communications. When you are really looking at things like the brand and reputation of an institution, what that external footprint looks like, is really where advancement comes together. When you think of integrated advancement, it’s all those ways of serving beyond the institution to the larger community and all of those coming together in coordinated ways — some institutions all under the same roof, some institutions more organizationally scattered in how they approach the work, but the messages go through all of those organizations. This understanding of all the components involved in advancement has been growing over time.

Q: What’s the biggest reason alumni engage with their alma mater, and what are some of the reasons they don’t?

The biggest reason people engage with their alma mater is community. They were a part of the community when they were at the institution, and they’ve been able to stay connected to that community in a variety of ways since they graduated. So, you get connections to alums from different decades, just knowing that they had a shared commonality of experiences. Also, there’s often ability to foster those connections in the larger community, whether that’s in-person or online events. It also matters what stage they are at in their career journey. As people are progressing in their career, there are different times when their institutions can be really valuable, whether it’s re-skilling or making connections when they first graduate or thinking about the larger impact in their profession that they can give back to as they advance in their careers. Also, we see a lot of people who when they received financial support for their education, they want to give back. And that is true in my own case — feeling that need to pay back the benefits of what you experienced as a student to make sure others have similar opportunities. I would say there is also a kind of giving back to a larger cause, or to the students who come after them, that we see with mentorship, career advice, internship programs and lifelong learning in a variety of ways.

Why do people not engage? There’s a couple of different reasons we see. One can be a bad experience as a student, so they don’t feel connected to the institution. Also, if the relationship with the institution just feels transactional, if all they ever hear is someone asking them for money and they do not have a deeper connection happening, they are not going to feel that engagement.

[READ: What College Trustees Are and Why They Matter]

Q: What long-term impact on alumni giving and institutional advancement might result in the wake of public announcements by wealthy alumni of some elite colleges and universities that they are ceasing financial donations due to what they describe as anti-Israel activism on campus?

It is too soon to tell. We are going to see what the impacts are over years if not lifetime of alumni. One thing I think it is important we keep in mind is that universities and colleges, if they’re doing their job right, often are the point where a lot of these discussions come to the forefront, because they are about an exchange of ideas. And we have seen at many moments in time where significant events are happening, where there have been protests on campus, there has been civil unrest — we saw it with the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, apartheid, divestment from fossil fuels, the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter — a lot of these conversations take place in various formats on college campuses. And I think we will continue to see that that is one of the spaces where important conversations and issues play out at our universities. What that means for the experience of the students now and alumni from those institutions over time, we will have a much better sense as time goes on. It is vital that all students feel safe and supported by their institutions throughout this challenging time. And the work that the universities do to maintain relationships with their students, with their alumni, to be a place where discussion is safe to have, really sets the tone for how the communities come together in the long run. So, this is not something new. It is the specific conversation we are having right now.

Q: Beyond the institution, who ultimately benefits from alumni engagement and how?

Society at large benefits when educational institutions thrive, because they are a place where innovation happens, where new breakthroughs in learning happen, where personal transformations for individual students happen. Where a variety of different skills are taught and ideas explored that help us address the new frontiers we need to as a society. And so when educational institutions are strong, everyone benefits. And sometimes it is practical benefits like economic impact to the community around them, the success of their graduates. But it is also the larger societal issues that we solve by the work that is done at institutions. And having engaged alumni is a sign of a thriving institution, of an institution that is able to bring together those ideas to show the progress that we’re making and be a real center of innovation and knowledge in the community they influence, whether that’s a physical community or the larger community. I also think there’s practical ways that people benefit from alumni engagement. Prospective students can see alums as role models. There is the job placement and career mentoring that happens. And then there is the ability to continue to engage in research and academic talks and the deep community that sometimes just cheering for the same sporting team brings together, where people feel a connection with those around them. But it really comes down to a variety of nested communities that are what make alumni engagement important. It shows the impact of your education well beyond the time you were a student, where you are a part of something bigger than yourself.

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Q&A: What’s Happening With College Alumni Engagement originally appeared on usnews.com

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