Overcoming the 9% Problem: New Ways to Unleash Alumni Social Capital at...

Opinion | Higher Education

Overcoming the 9% Problem: New Ways to Unleash Alumni Social Capital at Colleges

By Julia Freeland Fisher     Feb 12, 2021

Overcoming the 9% Problem: New Ways to Unleash Alumni Social Capital at Colleges

During college, I received a login to an alumni directory called “TigerNet.” Like many directories, it amounted to a glorified Yellow Pages. Admittedly, it offered valuable contact information for thousands of alumni. But its design and functionality still left the hardest part—making actual connections—up to students’ ability to ingratiate ourselves through cold calls and emails. Such outreach rarely translated to building authentic relationships.

Fast forward to today, and alumni connections are getting a refresh, thanks to a range of more dynamic tools that integrate alumni into the core of the college student experience. In a report out last week, my colleague Richard Price and I document how a host of tools are ushering alumni into more active roles as mentors to provide career advice and inspiration, improve course persistence, and provide experiential and work-based learning both in- and outside of the classroom. None of these roles for alumni are new per se. But emerging resources can help postsecondary institutions surmount what remains a major challenge: ensuring students are connecting to alumni along each of these dimensions, both authentically and at scale.

Alumni networks are part and parcel of the bill of goods that colleges and universities sell to students. And for good reason: an estimated half of jobs come through networks and connections. But according to a Strada-Gallup Alumni Survey, only 9 percent of college graduates reported that their alumni network was helpful in the job market. That startling statistic says a lot about how poorly most institutions actually perform when it comes to systematically connecting alumni and students. Innovation in this space is long overdue.

The tools we found from our research are starting to help to take the chance out of chance encounters between students and alumni by creating more frequent and deliberate touch points throughout a student’s journey and scaling the number of ways alumni can engage. None of them were specifically built to be an “alumni engagement” tool, per se, but they have the potential to revolutionize how institutions manage alumni relationships while also boosting the networks at students’ disposal. (Note: We have no financial relationship with any of them.)

Three particular opportunities for innovation stand out:

1. Helping less wealthy institutions scale networks.

Although alumni engagement is a core feature of brand-name institutions, less wealthy colleges and universities operate small to nonexistent endowments and, in turn, dedicate far fewer resources to engaging alumni in the first place. According to Chian Gong, a partner at edtech investment firm Reach Capital, these colleges make up the majority of the field: “There are only 4,000 higher education institutions in the country, and only about 700 of them have meaningful endowments or alumni initiatives today,” she said.

Entrepreneurs echoed this observation. “There is ‘liquidity,’ so to speak, in the most established alumni networks. Alumni participate. They help each other,” said Andrew Margie, CEO and founder of Alumnifire, an alumni networking platform that sells to high schools and postsecondary institutions. “But most schools and institutions don’t have anything close to that. These [less wealthy] schools are starting to rethink their model at the DNA level as they realize, ‘Of course we have an alumni network...but why isn’t it doing anything?’”

For these institutions, the emergence of affordable tools explicitly aimed at fostering connection—rather than soliciting donations—can help create that kind of liquidity in less-established networks. As Troy Williams, a managing director at University Ventures (whose portfolio includes PeopleGrove, a platform to help institutions organize mentors and career connections), explained: “In order to survive, non-elite schools, especially those with small endowments, will have to prove that they’re instrumental in helping their students get jobs. They will need to weave in job readiness, and that will include tying into alumni networks.”

For example, Margie’s company partnered with Sweet Briar College, which has faced dire financial straits in recent years, to facilitate alumni-to-student and alumni-to-alumni career networking support, including advice, mentorship, internships and jobs. Sweet Briar managed to launch the platform in under a week, and within six months, the college had achieved a ratio of 12 alumni volunteering professional help for every graduating senior.

In other words, alumni from less-selective institutions can still contribute to their alma mater’s bottom line by playing a key role in supporting students with their careers. For institutions like Sweet Briar, adopting cost-effective technologies that foster deeper student-alumni connections could underpin their ability to remain competitive—and afloat.

2. Creating experiences where authentic connections take root.

For all institutions, wealthy or not, tools that focus on alumni-student relationships can engineer experiences that go beyond general contact. Some specialize in fostering specific types of connections, so that students don’t have to cold call alumni for help or spend time asking vague questions in informational interviews.

For example, discussing a work project with an alumnus can lend substance to their interaction and build trust. “Imagine having a conversation with an alumni mentor that extends beyond how the football team’s doing, and how the local bars are. Imagine a conversation that focuses on a new core, on this project you’re collaborating on. That can be real,” said Jeffrey Moss, founder of Parker Dewey, a micro-internship marketplace that offers college students short-term, paid, professional projects. The company encourages alumni professionals working at these employers to extend micro-internships to students at their alma mater.

Other providers, like Mentor Collective, a platform that helps institutions pair students with older students and alumni as mentors, take this focus on connection a step further by providing training support for alumni mentors. “Not every volunteer is ready to be a mentor, particularly an alumni mentor serving vulnerable student populations,” said Jackson Boyar, co-founder and CEO of Mentor Collective. “In order to create a foundation for authentic engagement that transcends the transactional coffee chat, Mentor Collective provides expert-led training workshops to every mentor before they are matched.” These workshops offer guidance on best practices in mentoring, such as active listening, asking open-ended questions, and brokering trust and connections across cultural differences.

Boyar sees this as a way to ensure that alumni connections actually yield better student outcomes. “While this approach may weed out some less engaged mentors, it empowers those truly committed to make an even greater impact,” he said.

3. Coordinating shared value across institutions.

Another—albeit emergent—trend is leveraging technology to foster networks across institutions. This is starting to take place in experiential and work-integrated learning marketplaces. According to Dana Stephenson, co-founder and CEO of Riipen, a platform that helps faculty integrate real-world projects—many of which hail from alumni—into their classrooms, cross-pollination among alumni networks doesn’t happen overnight. “Early days when we started Riipen, some people didn’t want to share. It was really difficult to convince some schools to share their networks and show people how Open Educational Resources could be mutually beneficial,” he said.

To overcome this, Riipen had to show institutions that opening up their networks was a win-win for both alumni and their current students. Students can tap into a wider array of experts and alumni offering projects better suited to their needs and interests. And alumni are more likely to have their time-sensitive projects matched quickly because they can reach students at a broader scale--from both their alma mater and other institutions. “We were able to reach a tipping point where our customers were no longer worried about scarcity and were more willing to opt into the open ecosystem,” said Stephenson.

Another initiative, Bridges Alliance, operated by PeopleGrove, plans to follow suit. The company’s “Bridges” tool helps institutions organize work experiences offered by alumni within their existing communities. The company is now working to bring together institutions using the tool into an alliance in hopes to surface similar network effects across its clients. That way, students’ can access opportunities from alumni of their institutions, as well as others.

“Hiring freezes and the withdrawal of jobs and internships are just a couple of challenges today’s students are facing,” said Adam Saven, co-founder and CEO at PeopleGrove. “We must tap into the wealth of knowledge, innovation, social capital, and skills that exists within our collective networks and employer ecosystem to step up for students.”

These are worthwhile efforts to watch, given that they could start to upend the otherwise zero-sum nature of exclusive alumni networks.

As early alumni directories showed, technology alone isn’t a silver bullet for engaging alumni or ultimately improving student-alumni connection rates. Colleges face myriad trade-offs when it comes to how many resources to dedicate to this effort in the first place. Those with sizable endowments struggle over when to tap alumni for donations—their financial capital—or their time—their social capital. In other words, the innovation opportunities and constraints to embrace new technologies look different across the space.

But for an industry under pressure to prove its value, institutions stand to benefit from innovations that unlock not only alumni’s net worth, but also their networks. And that starts with going beyond simply providing contact information, and into the game of forming meaningful connections.

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up