Growing alumni engagement

By Tabitha Whissemore

Alumni can help colleges’ fundraising and recruitment efforts. They also can serve as mentors to current students. And the good news is that alumni are “increasingly interested in connecting with their alma maters,” according to results of a survey by Anthology.

The survey includes responses from 2,365 college and university alumni. Nearly 400 (17%) of the responses were from community college alumni. Seventy-two percent of the community college graduates expressed interest in staying connected with their alma mater (86% of non-community college graduates expressed the same).

More than 60% of alumni respondents showed high interest in participating in networking opportunities, career-related programming and community service activities. Breaking it down further, 53% of community college graduates expressed interest in networking opportunities at their alma mater.

They also want to be a resource for their colleges.

Nearly half (47%) of community college alumni expressed interest in helping current or prospective students. That’s about double the number who stated that they were very likely or somewhat likely to make a gift to their community college in the next 12 months (24%).

“Based on these survey results, there appears to be much opportunity to further engage community college graduates, whether through communications, programming or connecting them with current and prospective students,” says Mirko Widenhorn, Anthology’s senior director of engagement strategy.

But, there’s a problem: “There is a gap in the quality of contact information as nearly 50% of community college graduates indicated that they don’t receive any information from their alma mater,” Widenhorn adds.

Mutually beneficial relationship

For many community colleges, engaging alumni is a new – or new-ish – endeavor and it can have its challenges, particularly when it comes to maintaining contact with former students.

Estrella Mountain Community College (EMCC) started its alumni association about five years ago. The college is the youngest in the Maricopa Community Colleges District and “we had not tapped into our alumni at all,” says Jonathan Robles, director of alumni, corporate and foundation relations.

EMCC’s president at the time wanted to start “friendraising,” which offered an opportunity to reach out to alumni, a high percentage of whom still lived in the region. “If it ended with a donation, great,” Robles says, but there were other benefits to engaging alumni.

Alumni are a “great resource,” Robles says. They can volunteer at events and act as ambassadors for the college. EMCC has created a community advisory committee with alumni to expand outreach and engagement efforts.

It’s also beneficial for alumni to stay connected to EMCC. The college offers networking opportunities and career and employment services, as well as other alumni events, and presents annual alumni awards. They also have a quarterly newsletter to keep alumni updated and connect through social media.

Getting the alumni association off the ground wasn’t easy, though. Finding alums current contact information was an “operational challenge,” Robles says.

Another challenge was the time it took to build an alumni network. The alumni association is housed in the college’s foundation office, where staff are busy with many other activities.

EMCC wasn’t alone in their work, though. The Maricopa Community Colleges Foundation was a resource with a strong infrastructure and a good database, among other tools.

Collaborating with them has “helped lay down a good foundation for us,” Robles says.

Now, EMCC works to connect with alumni before they’re alumni. The college’s student orientation includes information about the alumni association. At the end of students’ EMCC journey, at commencement, graduates receive alumni pins and a college alum welcomes graduates to the alumni association.

“This kind of messaging isn’t just reserved for universities,” Robles says.

Maintaining a lifelong connection

At Bucks County Community College, alumni “help our students find success in many ways,” says Christine Harvie, coordinator of the annual fund and alumni engagement. “Many of our donors are alumni and many of our alumni started scholarships because they remember the struggles they had as students and they want to give back to current students.”

They also donate their time by mentoring students, speaking in Bucks classrooms or by volunteering in other ways.

The Pennsylvania college uses several tactics to keep track of people after they graduate, including social media. Instructors also are a great resource, Harvie says, because many maintain contact with their former students.

Harvie says Bucks has about 44,000 living alumni and the majority still live in Bucks County.

“This is where they grew up and where they started their career journey,” she says, so they have a willingness to get involved. The alumni association is a way for them to maintain a lifelong connection with the college.

Alumni have access to the college’s career services, libraries, fitness center and discounts at local businesses. They also have access to campus events.

Athletics alumni return to campus each year for reunions. More than 50 alumni recently attended a soccer reunion. Art-loving alumni often show up for art shows at the college.

And to support alumni with local businesses, Bucks launched the Alumni Food Trail during the pandemic. The Bucks website highlights restaurants where alumni are either the owners/operators or the chefs.

It started because “we wanted to support our alumni business owners during the pandemic,” Harvie says.

While the work of building an alumni network can be daunting, alumni are “critical,” says Harvie. “They’re our biggest donors and mentors.”

This article originally appeared in CC Daily.

Tabitha Whissemore

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.