This is the second of three articles that I have adapted from my alumni relations keynote at CASE V in Chicago, in December 2013. The title of my talk there was Alumni Relations & Advancement's Future: 3 Questions.
How will the changing student experience
affect alumni relationships?
Observers are buzzing about several so-called disruptive factors in education. Some of these factors influence the student experience, which in turn affects alumni attitudes and engagement. Here are four that we must think about:
Massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, are widely touted to be changing the face of traditional education. They are certainly a departure from the traditional face-to-face classroom: students enroll, usually for free or almost free, and pursue their chosen topic alongside 50,000 or 100,000 other learners. And they do it from the comfort of their laptop or their iPad.
MOOCs' short-term impact on the traditional degree is probably overstated, but their evolution is certain to influence our field.
So far, these online students are not earning degree credit. In fact, according to one recent survey, about 80% of MOOC students already have a traditional degree. And MOOCs are being criticized for their students' low completion rates. But MOOCs are a waypoint en route to some more robust future online educational experience. As the successors of MOOCs become the norm for students enrolled in post-secondary education, the students' sense of loyalty, community, or gratitude to a particular institution is going to diminish – or even disappear. So those of us whose work depends heavily on the residential campus experience must anticipate this challenge.
How do we connect meaningfully with alumni whose education took place online – in their office, in a coffee shop, or on an airplane?
[How do we connect with alumni whose
education took place in a coffee shop?]
2. The Changing Student Profile
Second, the typical student's profile is changing. No longer are the majority of university-goers fresh-faced twenty-year olds. Mid-career changers, single parents attending part time, and those just looking for intellectual enrichment may consider themselves alumni of whichever online platform delivered their favorite lectures. In fact, they may consider themselves alumni of the platform itself, and not a particular institution. Will this diverse body of learners want an alumni organization to connect them with job opportunities, with other learners, or with additional instruction? If so, the traditional affinity model of alumni relations has to evolve, or students will abandon it.
As the student profile changes so must our profession change. Among the services alumni organizations currently provide, career services and access to specialized networks will be the ones most relevant to alumni of non-residential programs. And they are already proving to be among the most relevant services for alumni of traditional institutions.
3. Expectations of Employment
Criticism of higher education is increasing. The most strident voices are those that reject the rising price tag of a college education.
But another group of critics may cause more stress and challenge for alumni professionals. Those are the people who increasingly want our institutions to somehow ensure jobs for graduates. And those people include the parents of many current undergraduates. The parents are footing much of the bill, assuming debt, and staking their family reputations on the extent to which their sons and daughters turn an expensive and time consuming college degree into a lucrative career.
The root of these complaints is an assumption made before a student even selects a university: that the purpose of a college degree is to help the graduate obtain "a good job" that pays well. Increasingly, this is the definition of alumni success, and increasingly it forms the backbone of numerous rankings and reports, which compare college outcomes on how much a new graduate can expect to earn. We hear little about rankings based on a graduate's inherent satisfaction with a college education, or on the extent to which the college experience turns a young and impressionable student into a contributor to her community. (Notably, the Gallup-Purdue Index will combine the "jobs" factor with the "life satisfaction" factor, measuring "great careers and lives that matter.")
If the student's primary concern is with compensation, alumni satisfaction will be at the mercy of the marketplace. However, the sheer number of students enrolled in fields that do not promise lucrative job offers suggests that the humanities, the liberal and fine arts, and the social sciences are not going away soon. And the passion those students have for their topics will continue for many years to give alumni offices the raw material they need to shape newly minted alumni into passionate and generous supporters of our institutions.
[If the student's concern is compensation,
alumni satisfaction is at the mercy of the marketplace]
Finally, a fourth dynamic is influencing the future of alumni relations: the diverse national backgrounds of students.
As students find it more appealing and easier to enroll across borders, the student body becomes ever more international. At my institution (all locations), almost 40% of enrolled students came from outside the United States in 2012. Many overseas students in North America have English as a second language, and their language proficiency heavily influences their student experience. They are in an unfamiliar land with strange customs and unexpected influences. In this situation, most of us would prefer the company of classmates whose language, backgrounds, and cultural references match our own.
These students often travel back to their home country as new alumni, without having truly joined our institutions' broader community. As alumni, they are much less likely to respond to the same messages and images that generate engagement with so many "traditional" alumni.
The challenges and changes I've listed here are only a few of the forces guiding the evolution of alumni relations. Other trends, such as the demographics of younger generations, will add additional fuel and data to future discussios.
Many of us may not feel like we have time to think about the futures these trends are creating. But observing the profiles and experiences of current students may determine our success at engaging the attention and enjoying the support of these students during their lives as alumni.
The third and final part of this series will ask, "Can we predict the future of alumni relations?"