An August 2016 study by the Journal of Business Research reveals that although students' attachment to their higher education institution develops slowly over time, once this attachment forms, these individuals are committed to preserving the relationship. This research comes at a time when many institutions continue to struggle to engage young alumni. According to a recent survey of alumni relations organizations conducted by Alumni Access, 24% characterize their programs designed to attract and engage young alumni as "doing a poor job," while 63% say they "need to do more" and just 13% say they are "doing well." Still, colleges and universities continue to set aside hundreds of thousands of dollars for their alumni organizations, with the majority of organizations surveyed reporting an annual budget of at least $150,000. While their efforts are sometimes successful, part of the challenge these organizations face in engaging alumni could be a result of waiting until students have already graduated before applying resources that attempt to encourage their attachment to the institution.
As part of an ongoing measurement of college graduates' career and life outcomes, the Gallup-Purdue Index measures graduates' emotional attachment to their alma mater through their level of agreement with two statements: "I can't imagine a world without [College name]" and "[College name] was the perfect school for people like me." Graduates who strongly agree with both statements are considered emotionally attached.
Gallup research conducted among alumni of several individual universities suggests that those who strongly agree with Gallup's measures of emotional attachment are more likely to be alumni donors. The research also shows that only 18% of U.S. graduates are emotionally attached to their alma mater. The conclusion? If colleges and universities can cultivate strong attachment among students before they graduate, the payoff in the end could be significant for those institutions.
How Can Higher Ed Institutions Increase Alumni Attachment?
Gallup has identified six important undergraduate experiences (three related to support and three related to experiential learning) that increase the odds for alumni to be emotionally attached. If graduates strongly agree that they had these experiences, their odds of being emotionally attached increase.
The 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index study shows that only 3% of all U.S. graduates, looking back at their college days, strongly agree that they experienced all six elements of support and experiential learning. There appears to be a substantial opportunity, then, for colleges and universities to increase the percentage of graduates who strongly agree with all six critical experiences -- thus increasing the percentage of alumni attached to the university and the school's potential donor base.
Creating this type of culture begins the moment a student first steps foot on campus. Colleges and universities that wait until students graduate to begin forging meaningful relationships may only experience marginal returns on their efforts to engage graduates and increase alumni giving. While dollar goals may still be met in some cases, the opportunity cost incurred by universities that fail to produce emotionally attached graduates could be far greater. When institutions focus on ensuring students experience crucial elements of support and experiential learning during their time in college, they improve the chances that those students will become emotionally attached graduates with greater potential of becoming lifelong donors.
Alumni relations organizations should be deeply involved with those on campus responsible for the student experience (admissions, advising, career services, student affairs, diversity and inclusion offices, etc.) and offer accountability measures aimed at improving experiential learning and support for students. They should further encourage efforts to engage students' hearts (support) and minds (experiences) beyond academic learning to ease the burden of attempting to engage students only after they become alumni.