Why Do We Treat Our New Alumni So Poorly?

Our relationships with new grads almost always start off on the wrong foot. They're frustrated with their student loan debt. They hate being asked to give to the annual fund. They give at low rates,¹ don't think their degrees are worth the cost,² and don't think their alma maters are doing enough to help them build their careers.³ ⁴

In short, many young alumni resent their alma maters to varying degrees—and they resent us palpably.

But we've become so used to this reality that we seldom seek to change it, and rarely realize that we have the power to counteract its negative effects. We take the disillusionment of young alumni for granted, along with the resentful relationships and reduced giving and involvement that come with it.

To better understand why alumni feel this way, what we can do about it, and what we stand to gain by improving, let's return to the moment they become alumni. When we walk through the experience of our alumni, starting with graduation, it becomes much more clear why they resent us—and what we can do to change that.

Congratulations! Now get out

The problem: We celebrate when students graduate. Commencement has all the pomp and circumstance of a wedding. But in reality, graduation is more like a divorce.

Institutions of higher ed do everything for their students. We find them friends, they have a place for them to live, and they cook meals for them. We educate students, guide them to maturity, and give their life a routine. We invest tremendous amounts of time and resources in the student experience.

After commencement, we send them off—and then, nothing. When you compare our investment in the student experience to our investment in the graduate experience, it seems like we just don't care about alumni.

When students graduate, they leave the community they've known for years. They leave their friends, their mentors, and the place where they felt they had a purpose. They leave their alma mater, their "nurturing mother," their surrogate family. Mike Sciola, associate vice president of institutional advancement and career initiatives at Colgate University, puts it this way:

By the time they’re seniors, they’re at the top of their profession — nobody is better at being a student. And then in May, we lay them off.⁵
Grumpy Cat graduation cap: "I graduated once. It was awful."

We tend not to spend much time thinking about the social and emotional toll that graduating has on our alumni, but it has an enormous impact on our relationships with them. Our inattention after graduation fosters resentment in many, if not most, alumni, and damages their loyalty to their alma mater right out of the gate.

Too often, the first that new alumni hear from us again is when we invite them to give to the annual fund. Can you imagine how you'd feel if a best friend stopped talking to and spending time with you for a year, only to then ask you a favor? That's more or less how we kick off our relationships with alumni.

The solution: We need to put more effort into easing the student-to-alumni transition and establishing a good foundation for a lifelong relationship between alumni and alma mater—in meaningful ways, not just by giving them a branded mug and keychain at a senior dinner.

Some schools approach the issue by hosting events specifically for new or soon-to-be grads. Vanderbilt University invites seniors to connect on campus with alumni board members, reunion leaders, and chapter leaders from the cities where they expect to land after graduation. Vanderbilt's alumni association also hosts a number of other events for outgoing seniors before they leave to help them with whatever it is they need. The University makes an effort to be an active presence in its graduates' post-campus lives, even before commencement.

At the same time we try to bridge the student experience and the alumni experience, we need to invest more in our alumni. This doesn't mean holding their hands like we do our students'—it just means considering and helping them meet their needs. We have networks of thousands of people willing to help young alumni out: the alumni who came before them. All we need to do is make the introduction. We can make alumni feel like they're still a part of their alma mater's community by helping them find their place in it.

"Give you money? I'm still paying off my loans"

The problem: We ask our alumni to give back to their alma mater without helping them establish their capacity to give first. An alumna in a subpar job is in neither the financial position nor the mindset to make a gift to her college.

Our students graduate in debt, dissatisfied with the career services they receive, and unconvinced about whether their degree was worth the cost. They frequently cite their debt as a reason for not giving—more so than any other reason.³

Most advancement offices treat career services as an afterthought when they should be treating it as a top priority. Helping new grads achieve positive career outcomes is not only central to our value propositions as institutions of higher education, it's essential to building alumni giving capacity and cultivating donors.

The vast majority of students attend college looking for a better job and better pay.⁶ If that's exactly where we aren't delivering, how can we expect them to want or be able to help us in return?

The solution: To borrow a metaphor from commercial aviation, our alumni need to put their own masks on before they can help someone else with theirs.

Place the oxygen mask on yourself first before helping small children or others who may need your assistance.

Alumni career services develops in our alumni their capacity to help themselves first so they can better help others (including their alma mater) down the road.

Mt. Holyoke guarantees funding to its students for at least one unpaid internship during their four years there. The data show that Mt. Holyoke's Lynk program is not only closing the economic gap between wealthy and disadvantaged students, but making internships, and thus better career outcomes, more accessible to all their students. This isn't career services for alumnae, but it is a big investment in their alumnae's future. Smith College similarly provides funding for about 400 students with unpaid internships every summer with its Praxis program. Colgate, Duke, Tufts, and others do the same.

Of course, not every school has the resources to fund unpaid internships, or to hire full-time staff dedicated to providing alumni career services. Even those that do can't possibly service every alumna on their own. We need to enlist the help of our vast alumni networks and empower alumni to help each other. Our institutions can be the umbrellas under which these interactions occur—our alumni can be the ones doing the leg work. We need to activate these networks efficiently and enable our alumni to provide services to one another.

Fostering a culture of giving

The problem: We've all heard the line that we should "foster a culture of giving" at our institutions. It's an amorphous solution to a complex problem. Our alumni aren't giving at the rates we want, unlike the alumni of institutions X, Y, and Z. Why is that? Because they have a culture of giving. Of course!

The nonsensically tautological nature of this answer aside (Why is it windy? Because the wind is blowing!), it does have some merit. It is important to educate our students and alumni about the impact their contributions have. But that merit is usually obscured by our narrow understanding of "giving."

Too often, the effective definition of "a culture of giving" is "a reality where our alumni don't hang up on our phonathon callers when they ask them to give." We envision a purely financial form of generosity when in fact we need contributions of all kind—volunteered time and expertise for us and mentorship, advice, and opportunities for our students and alumni. A true culture of generosity runs much deeper than donations and requires more work on our part to create.

Ron Cohen, vice president of university relations at Susquehanna University, puts it this way:

We need to tap into the enormous reservoir of non-monetary assets that graduates are willing and waiting to give. We need to ask alumni for a broader array of contributions that deliver consequential results. And we need to realize that these results are valuable enough on their own to pursue, because for many alumni, the non-monetary contribution is the most meaningful one they will ever be able to make.⁷

Of course, shifting institutional perspective isn't something we can do in a day.

The solution: Creating culture can't just be another bullet point on our strategic plan. It's not something you can cross off a to-do list. The word culture comes to English via Middle French from the Latin cultura, "a cultivating, agriculture." The etymology of the word culture aptly describes what it truly is. Culture is a process, not a product. If we are to create a culture of giving, it must be a constant unfolding of generosity, a continuous manifesting of our values. It has to be reflected in everything we do.

Truly creating a culture of giving isn't something we can do at our institutions alone, and it isn't something we can do quickly. In the meantime, though, we can work to bring it about in our own, smaller ways.

Elon University hired alumni engagement officers, who are like gift officers but whose goal is to solicit engagement, not financial gifts. Longwood University's 1 Hour a Month Volunteer Program encourages alumni to remain active in their community. Oberlin College won a CASE Circle of Excellence Gold award for getting dozens of alumni to offer career and life advice to students and fellow alumni.

All these schools recognize that generosity goes both ways, that they have to give to their communities first before they can make the ask in return, and that "giving" doesn't just mean making a gift to the annual fund.

Where do we go from here?

Some things in this equation are beyond our control. (Who are we to cap the rising cost of higher education and eliminate the country's $1 trillion in student debt?) But we can still demonstrate to our alumni that we care by including them in their alma mater's community, helping them meet their needs by activating their network, and by treating them like more than piggy banks. ♦︎

Have you found success addressing these issues at your institution, or do you know of another that has? Share your story in the comments.

¹ Dan Allenby, "Class Exodus," CASE Currents, October 2014.
² "Gallup-Purdue Index Report: Great Jobs, Great Lives," 2015.
³ Alumni Attitude Study.
⁴ "Gallup-Purdue Index Report," 2016.
⁵ "Lifelong Launchpad," Colgate Scene, Spring 2014.
⁶ "CIRP Freshman Survey," HERI, 2016.
⁷ Ron Cohen, "More than Dollars: How Many Opportunities are You Missing with Your Alumni?Academic Impressions, May 24, 2016.