My community college and our larger system recently embarked on an effort to strengthen relationships with alumni. It is an exciting endeavor. It is also very interesting effort, especially when we think about alumni organizations in comparison to what four-year institutions usually do.
Alumni professionals report that graduates usually join alumni organizations for networking, for personal and professional development, to maintain their connection with their peers and their college, and to obtain other benefits. Alumni are invited to events, receive discounts and other perks, and are “cultivated” – to use a development team. That cultivation is the driver of much activity from the institution’s perspective. Alumni can be powerful advocates, aids and donors to an institution. We all know of ways that a well-run and established alumni network can attract new students, give graduates greater opportunities, and generate donations. Alumni relationships are one of the ways that a college education distinguishes itself from a simple transaction. Colleges are about personal and social identity, too, and many other intangibles.
When community colleges think about alumni relations, it is important to have good discussions about what alumni organizations can do and cannot do. Why might they matter to the graduate or institution? Rarely will sports be the draw or means of bringing alumni together. For many years, most community colleges did not have alumni organizations. That is changing – and there’s solid research on what is happening. According to study by CASE the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, more than 70% of all community college alumni live in or near their community college’s service area. In other words, the “community” part of a community college’s mission is vital and outlasts individual student enrollment.
Some community colleges have bolstered alumni efforts for fundraising. This is a long-term strategy. Realizing gains, however, can take take many years and institutions have to proceed carefully. Community college students are often of limited means.
The AAC&U’s quarterly publication, Diversity & Democracy, recently highlighted a different focus. John J. Theis, Director of the Center for Civic Engagement at Lone Star College Kingwood, explained how civic engagement activities anchored their growing alumni organization. Moving away from sports and giving campaigns, the college instead developed programming in the community with alumni, faculty and students. Considering the close relationship between college and community, this strategy has much to recommend. I expect that more than a few community colleges may adopt this approach. The stronger the relationship between college and community, the more effective an institution can perform.
Whatever priorities a community college may set for an alumni effort, ultimately the direction taken will rest on what motivates the college’s alumni. Figuring that out is a worthwhile aim, in and of itself. When we listen closely to our communites, we always learn.