The Challenge—and Importance—of Intergenerational Alumni Networking

Higher education is instrumental in generating economic and social mobility, and networking within higher education communities is essential to that process. Student-alumni networks promote the transmission of social capital across generational and class lines and are often just as important (if not more so) to graduates' success as their degree itself. [1]

Intergenerational connections produce the most worthwhile alumni relationships because they let older alumni offer advice and opportunities to their younger, less established counterparts. Without intergenerational networks, resources can only travel laterally among alumni in the same cohort, and the potential of alumni communities is squandered.

The degree to which an alumna's network is intergenerational is inherently limited by the four-year college cycle. Assuming that students graduate in four years, an alumna from the class of 2010 won't have any firsthand connections past the class of 2007 (or secondhand connections with anyone older than the class of 2004).

Potential first- and secondhand connections for the Class of 2010 only extend back to the Class of 2004.

Potential first- and secondhand connections for the Class of 2010 only extend back to the Class of 2004.

Any networking beyond the three-year threshold requires an intermediary, whether an introduction from staff, a friend, or a connection via an online platform. For young alumni who are just finding their bearings, it's often unclear how to access these intermediaries to connect with older alumni. According to the Alumni Attitude Study, thousands of graduates across the country cite access to alumni as one of the pieces of their student experience that they would most like their alma maters to improve upon.

Improving access to alumni might sound time intensive, but it doesn't have to mean spending hours introducing students to alumni one-on-one—it's as simple as opening lines of communication between the student body and alumni community so that connections can form on their own. Higher ed professionals shouldn't worry about having to individually usher students into mentorship relationships, but instead concern themselves with cultivating networks of alumni who are willing to give advice and share opportunity. [2] Harvard Business School, for example, finds that providing students and alumni with the chance to form connections organically is far more effective than hosting more structured events.

Career Services consultant Sheila Curran, among others, describes these alumni networks as "career communities." When career communities are in place, all career centers and alumni relations offices have to do is point students in the right direction and let the alumni in a given industry community take it from there. One of our partner schools, Willamette University, has spent years cultivating a public policy-oriented career community. When a Willamette student is interested in learning more about working on public policy, staff no longer have to spend hours tracking down the right alumna to introduce her to. Instead, they show her the public policy career community and let its members help her find what she needs.

Career centers and alumni relations offices have traditionally spent time making one-off connections or holding one-on-one counseling sessions, but those methods don't scale. If we want to help students and young alumni form the intergenerational connections that are necessary to their success, and expected from us as their alma maters, alumni networks and career communities are an ideal solution.


Want to learn more about how Switchboard creates intergenerational connections? Watch this testimonial video from a young alumna at one of our partner schools:

[1]. Tholen, Gerbrand, Phillip Brown, Sally Power, and Annabelle Allouch, "The Role of Networks and Connections in Educational Elites’ Labour Market Entrance," Science Direct 34 (2013): 142-54, Web, 06 Sept. 2016.

[2]. "Social Mobility, Careers Advice & Alumni Networks." London: Future First, 2012. Web, 06 Sept. 2016.