Alumni networks reimagined:
Innovations expanding alumni connections to improve postsecondary pathways

February 1, 2021

Executive Summary

Alumni networks are part of the bill of goods that colleges and universities sell to students. But according to a Strada-Gallup Alumni Survey, only 9% of college graduates reported that their alumni network was helpful or very 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 in reliable, scalable ways. Endowment-supported institutions have long-held, elaborate strategies in place to “engage” alumni to mine their financial capital. But if the Strada-Gallup alumni survey is any clue, they—and their peer institutions with smaller or no endowments—could be doing more to successfully activate alumni’s social capital.

That social capital has immense potential to drive improvements in students’ experiences while on campus, and to bolster graduates’ long-term return on investment (ROI) in a degree. As policymakers, students, and advocates increasingly question the value of college, access to networks could be a critical variable determining which degrees are deemed worth the cost and how reliably they pay dividends in the labor market.

Luckily, a range of technology tools and new alumni engagement models are starting to emerge that could help postsecondary institutions change course, taking the chance out of chance encounters between students and alumni. In this paper we explore how innovative technologies and new business models are making it possible for institutions to enlist alumni across four functions. These include alumni serving as:

  • mentors to drive persistence and student success;

  • sources of career advice, inspiration, and referrals;

  • providers of experiential learning, internships, and client projects;

  • and part-time staff for program delivery.

The rise of technology tools for alumni engagement, student support, and work-integrated learning hold immense promise to mobilize alumni across these four functions. Paired with new departmental, pedagogical, and staffing models focused on increasing students’ employability and job prospects, these new tools could radically expand the roles that alumni play across the higher education enterprise.

If and how these innovative approaches scale, however, will depend in part on the opportunities and constraints that three different types of institutions face:

  • Postsecondary institutions with well-established endowments could start to optimize for access to—rather than just the prestige of—their alumni networks. This will depend on visionary leadership and cross-departmental efforts, particularly across career services, student support, and advancement.

  • With affordable technologies, colleges and universities without sizable endowments could start to compete on more networked models for student support and learning. These models could enlist alumni to enrich on-campus experiences and position students for labor market success, particularly on a local and regional basis, post-graduation.

  • Given that newer entrants like bootcamps and other upskilling programs aren’t beholden to an alumni-driven fundraising model, they could embrace wholly new alumni networking models as they attempt to scale. These models could lend more long-term value and career flexibility to their graduates, and in turn help them to move up market.

In an outcomes-based postsecondary market focused on employment and ROI, students’ access to networks will likely matter more. Alumni bases hold a critical stock of social capital, currently lying dormant across much of the system. For an industry under pressure to prove its value, institutions stand to benefit from innovations that not only unlock alumni’s net worth, but also their networks.

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Julia Freeland Fisher

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. Her work aims to educate policymakers and community leaders on the power of Disruptive Innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres. Be sure to check out her book, "Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students' Networks"

Richard Price

Richard Price is a Strategy and Corporate Development Associate at Western Governors University, supporting strategic planning efforts throughout the institution. Prior to his time at WGU, Richard was a research fellow in higher education at the Christensen Institute. Richard graduated from Princeton University, where he majored in Computer Science and pursued a certificate in Global Health and Health Policy.

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