Effectively Utilizing Your Alumni’s Social Capital

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In a 2018 Strada-Gallup Alumni Survey, only 9% of college graduates said their alumni network was helpful or very helpful in navigating the job market.

That statistic comes from a group of people who thought they were getting access to a valuable network of graduates when they enrolled in their college.

How can higher ed institutions better capitalize on their alumni as a resource for students?

Julia Freeland Fisher, Author & Director of Education at the Clayton Christensen Institute, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about the future of the well-networked university and the best ways for advancement teams to engage with their alumni.

Are Colleges Effectively Using Their Alumni? (No!)

Alumni are the fuel for many colleges and universities that rely heavily on endowments to sustain themselves. In that sense, alumni are a powerful force. But less than one in ten college graduates think their alumni network is helpful in the job market.

That’s pretty astounding. We’re selling students a bill of goods, baked into the price of tuition, and access to a network is part of that. Clearly, the alumni network is an undercapitalized resource at most schools, particularly when it comes to students having options and flexibility in the labor market post-graduation.

What do you make of that (shocking) 9% statistic?

In colleges and universities focused on alumni giving, development offices generally own the alumni relationships. Interestingly, that’s not the majority of postsecondary institutions. 

But sticking with those institutions where advancement offices cultivate alumni for financial capital: What would it mean to cultivate alumni for their social capital? And from a business case, how does that actually contribute to the students overall return on investment? 

As the higher education market shifts to something more outcomes-based, institutions are increasingly held accountable for creating value long-term in their students’ lives.

Engagement vs Giving: The Best Ask for Alumni

In May, 2020, early in the pandemic, David Green, president of Colby College, made a bold move. He repurposed alumni officers as job seekers. 

Fundraisers started tapping their networks to help open doors for Colby graduates who were seeing poor job prospects during the recession. This move bore a lot of fruit. 

This change did not signal a permanent shift. Colby College has not abandoned all fundraising efforts. In fact, they’re in the middle of a giant campaign now. 

But the lesson here is: if employability of your graduates is a high priority, then asking for social capital, referrals, advice, and support on behalf of your students and recent graduates will return real dividends. 

Paying attention to social capital, not just financial capital, is critical, and the Colby College experience shines a light on untapped potential in these networks.

What Is the Future State of a Well-networked University?

Your network model will depend on your financial model, but let’s look at two big storylines.

  1. Among more elite and/or well-resourced universities recruit prospective students with shiny profiles of successful alumni.. and more importantly, with access to that alumni. But access can happen throughout the student journey, not just through a directory at the tail end when you’re looking for a job. From day one, students could interact with alumni who can mentor them, provide advice, offer internships, or even hire them for part-time jobs. That’s one sign of a networked university.
  2. Colleges and universities can also start to treat relationships as outcomes alongside skills and competencies. And by the way, entrepreneurs in our audience, there’s a gap in affordable technology tools for colleges and universities that do not have an active alumni engagement strategy. Larger providers are building platforms for wealthier institutions that can pay higher prices. That leaves open a giant swath of the market of colleges and other institutions that could take immense advantage, particularly of local alumni networks, to plug their graduates into regional economies.

Do I have to break up my alumni relations program?

No, but you do need to shift your mindset. When it comes to tactics, these three keep turning up:

  1.  Collaborate across siloed departments — student affairs, career services, and alumni engagement. Authentic collaboration involves more than talking. It centers on shared resources.
  2. Hold that collaboration accountable for social capital, not just financial capital, as the resource being generated out of alumni engagement. Universities are all about alumni engagement metrics. Too few of them are asking for student-level success metrics. That thinking needs to shift if we want cross-silo collaboration to bear fruit for graduates.
  3. Pay attention to technologies emerging in the post-secondary space that may not be labeled alumni engagement technologies but may have immense potential. Experiential learning and access to client projects, which are much shorter than a full-fledged internships, can translate to jobs down the line. 

Do what you need to do to tap into those rich alumni networks that are flush with social capital that we’re leaving on the table right now.


This post is based on a podcast interview with Julie Freeland Fisher of Clayton Christensen Institute. To hear this episode and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.