Scaling Networks to Empower Our Students, Alumni, and Institutions

Pick a constituent-facing professional at any school, and you’ll find that they’re busy.  Too many students and alumni to help, too little time.

No matter how many one-on-one meetings you have or events you throw, when you’re operating on that kind of scale, there’s no way that traditional methods can help all the students and alumni who need it.

Some teams have turned to technology for solutions, but too often the technology they choose replicates in the digital realm the same challenges they face in the physical one.

One-on-one meetings over Skype can take place remotely, but they’re still one-on-one. Digital events can bring people together from across the globe without having to fly everyone back to campus, but they aren’t any larger than in-person gatherings.

These tools have conquered distance, but they haven’t solved the problem of scale. And that means thousands of students and alumni who need help are still going without it.

For an example of a digital platform that has solved the problem of scale, we turn to the world of programming.

StackOverflow’s scalable braintrust

Enter StackOverflow.

StackOverflow was founded in 2008 to give programmers a place to turn for help when they got stumped on a coding problem. Almost 7 million people use it today.

The mechanics of the site are simple. A user posts a question, for example—“What’s the proper way to ensureIndex index mongodb field on a multidimensional array?” An easy one, right?

 Stack Overflow

When someone knows the solution, they can post an answer, which can then be ‘upvoted’ or ‘downvoted’ to help readers figure out which one is most helpful. Other users can chime in in the comments, and the original poster can mark the answer that worked for them as the ‘accepted’ answer.

 Stack Overflow

The user who posted the solution gets a little bump to their ‘reputation,’ a score displayed every time they post to help others gauge their reliability and expertise. That score makes the answerer feel good about their contribution and keeps them coming back to help more. (The StackOverflow reputation score has become so reliable an indicator of knowledge and skill that prospective employers use it to find and evaluate potential hires.)

And then—here’s the key—that question and answer lives on in perpetuity.

Nobody has to ask the same question again. If someone has that question in the future, they can search for it on StackOverflow or even just find it on Google.

 Stack Overflow

80% of StackOverflow’s traffic actually comes from people using Google to find answers to their programming problems. Collectively, the millions—yes, millions—of questions and answers on StackOverflow form an enormously valuable library of solutions, a braintrust, for coders. That’s why StackOverflow is one of the top 50 most visited sites on the internet.

What if you could create that kind of buzz for career questions in your community?

Crowdsourcing career solutions

As a constituent-facing professional who answers repeat questions all the time, you can immediately see the value in having this kind of braintrust. Never again would you have to spend half an hour drafting an email to direct one person to the same resources you just sent another to the week before. Never again would you lose access to the connections created during a networking event. Every solution would live on in an archive accessible to anyone else with the same question.

Open up that ask and answer process to thousands of students and alumni, and you’d have a thriving, helpful community just like StackOverflow. It would be the place to send alumni volunteers whom you’re not sure how to direct, and students who need advice and opportunities you don’t yet know of. Students and alumni could search for questions that others had already asked and find solutions people had already shared. Or they could post a new question and put your school’s entire network on the case.

It wouldn’t be just a one-off digital event or conversation—it would be a career solution crowdsourcing engine. It would help thousands of your students and alumni without your direct intervention and time investment in every interaction. And its value would only increase over time as it accumulated solutions and recruited more and more users from your institution’s network. In fact, this network would become your institution’s competitve advantage.

It would also give you insight into what your community needs and cares about. If a lot of students posted questions about working in journalism, you might invite alumni to hold a special journalism workshop on campus. Lots of alumni answering questions about med school? Get them to start an Alumni in Medicine group.

Every question answered would contribute to your constituents’ career success and strengthen your institution in the long-term.

Creating a network of opportunity at Oberlin

Oberlin College is one example of a school that has created a career solution crowdsourcing network akin to StackOverflow. It’s worked so well for them that they won a CASE Circle of Excellence Gold Award for their efforts in 2016.

Their network boasts over 2500 users and thousands of questions and answers. Here a few examples of successful interactions.

 Oberlin's alumni network

Dorothy asked for help with her application to the Watson Fellowship, which requires her to develop contacts across the globe for a year abroad. Because of her question, she connected with three Oberlin alumni who had suggestions and connections for her. This is the kind of question where it’s best to ask as many people within your network as possible—you never know who is going to know someone—and Oberlin’s platform enabled that.

 Oberlin's alumni network

Abby posted looking for connections in the Durham/Raleigh, NC area and connected with three Obies. She was able to connect with a fellow local, make introductions for another alumna looking for career connections, and talk to a young alum interested in moving to North Carolina. These are the kinds of questions it might take an hour or more for someone in a career services or alumni relations office to answer—it takes time to dig up the right people in the right industry and the right places—but that are easy for alumni to answer themselves. And because the connections happen on an Oberlin-run platform, the office in question still gets to facilitate every interaction, and the institution gets to take the credit for making it.

 Oberlin's alumni network

Alex’s question about finding housing for a winter internship led him directly to Oberlin’s Career Center. It’s the sort of question that a student might not think to ask career services for help with, but that career services professionals have the resources to answer. Oberlin’s platform allows their Career Center to reach students and alumni with help whom they wouldn’t have reached before.

The necessity of scaling our networks

The 2016 Gallup-Purdue Index found that only 16% of alumni were satisfied with the career services they received from their alma mater.

That isn’t just unfortunate—it’s dangerous.

If institutions of higher education are to survive and stay competitive, they need to prove their worth to an increasingly skeptical audience, and career services is at the front lines of that fight. Not only do schools have to prove their worth to prospective students and their families, they have to demonstrate it to students once they’re accepted and to alumni once they graduate. Alumni incomes and giving rates are vital to the survival of colleges and universities, and career services can have an enormous impact on both statistics.

Scalable digital solutions are an easy way to reach the students and alumni who need help but aren’t receiving it, and to better serve those who are. As more schools rise to the occasion and seek to scale career services, these career solution crowdsourcing platforms will be a powerful ally.