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The Kids Are All Right

As the number of young alumni grows, alumni offices must get creative to keep recent grads engaged.
University Business, May 2007

ENCOURAGING YOUNG ALUMNI TO STAY INVOLVED at Wartburg College (Iowa) has presented a thorny challenge for Todd Coleman. Coleman, the school's director of alumni and parent programs, would love to see recent graduates take advantage of all the school has to offer them, but many of the approaches used for older alums aren't relevant to the younger generation. "They don't want to sit down for long dinners and listen to speeches. They don't want propaganda thrown at them, and they don't have the time to take off for golf outings or other events," he says.

On the other hand, young alumni have been eager for any assistance they can find as they get their fledgling careers off the ground, notes Coleman and that's where Wartburg has taken advantage of opportunities. The college began hosting alumni events in companies where a large number of Wartburg graduates work. Wartburg sent out invitations, bought attendees lunch, and encouraged the alumni to mingle with each other. Young alums in particular showed up in droves, looking for a chance to make an impression with company higher-ups. They left with a good feeling about the school as well as visual reminders of their Wartburg allegiance: souvenirs such as coffee mugs or mouse pads for their desks.

"A lot of young alums have never been in the same room as a vice president or CEO of a company, who might be an alum," says Coleman. "And since we're not asking people to give up free time at night or on the weekend to come to an event, we find that we have a much higher percentage of people coming."

The gatherings do double duty: A Wartburg representative will be on hand to point out any matching gift programs that the company might have, which is often news to young alumni. This might not result in immediate donations, but many alumni tuck that knowledge away for later.

Engaging young alumni is a tricky balance of providing the right opportunities and relevant perks without demanding too much time or money in return. They might be passionate about their alma mater, but as they start their lives after college, other activities often take priority.

Still, making the connection with young alumni is essential, says Sandy Nichols, director of Alumni Relations and the Wooster Fund at The College of Wooster (Ohio). "In anywhere from five to 35 years, these alumni will be our board of trustees and they'll be parents of students looking at colleges," she says. "We need to connect with young alumni now, or they will connect with other things. We want to make sure that we're an active part of their future long after they leave the college, because it benefits us and it benefits them."

Following are some ways institutions can reach out to young alumni:

Faced with a host of post graduation challenges from new jobs to new social circles young alumni are often eager to return to familiar friends and settings. So it's no surprise that young alumni happy hours are common at many schools.

At the University of St. Thomas (Minn.), however, administrators have been eager to expand on the theme. "We'll sometimes tie a happy hour into something more educational," says Katie Stephens, the school's program manager of alumni and constituent relations. For instance, at a successful election-themed happy hour held last fall, Political Science department professors weighed in on an upcoming vote. "We've also done things like brewery tours and wine tasting events," Stephens adds.

Alumni offices and associations are engaging another segment of the young alumni population by appealing to graduates with a strong social conscience. A nationwide "Scots in Service" program at Wooster, for one, attracted hundreds of alumni in 24 cities last year to take part in volunteer activities at soup kitchens, clothing banks, and parks.

Nichols says it's a particularly attractive activity to cash-strapped young alumni who want to stay involved in the college. The majority of participants and volunteer leaders graduated within the past decade. "A high percentage of Wooster grads go to graduate school or work at nonprofit organizations after they graduate, so this is a way for young alumni to stay involved and give back without having to make a big financial commitment," she says. "And that's a really big draw for a lot of people." Wooster sends a member of the executive staff to each city to give a brief update about college events, and each participant goes home with a T-shirt designed specifically for that year's service project.

For schools with large numbers of alumni scattered around the globe, electronic networking can be a boon, particularly for young alumni, who are already tech-savvy. Wartburg's Coleman says his college is using the social networking program in Circle similar to sites like Facebook and MySpace-to connect alumni with the college. Alumni office staff have asked faculty members to set up virtual spaces in which professors can link up with former students; areas are also available for particular groups such as alumni who were members of a championship sports team to swap messages, share pictures, and post blogs.

Though the program is just getting off the ground, Coleman sees plenty of potential. "The key is to keep on marketing it and make it a place that alumni want to go on a regular basis," he says.

The College of Wooster's nationwide 'Scots in Service' program attracted hundreds of alumni volunteers in 24 cities last year. It's a way for cash-strapped young alumni to stay involved in their alma mater.

According to Michelle Reed, vice president of marketing at SunGard Higher Education, web-based programs can also include online directories, information on alumni chapters and events, class webpages, and alumni networking. A host of systems-from vendors such as Affinity Circles, Blackbaud, Campus Management, Convio, Datatel, GoalQuest, Harris Connect, Intelliworks, Jenzabar, Oracle, SunGard, and Talisma offer services for schools that want to connect to their young alumni through sophisticated, customized communications and web-based communities. Some of the systems can be implemented with students as well, so by the time they graduate they will already know a great deal about how to stay connected.

"Savvy institutions are leveraging the appeal and familiarity of their institutional portal to stay connected with young alumni," Reed says. "Upon graduation, alumni are presented with a host of new personalized and pertinent resources, but they can access them from the same familiar portal they accessed throughout their collegiate years."

Young alums may be eager to get out on their own after graduation, but that doesn't mean they wouldn't mind a little help along the way. Assistance with everything from health and renters' insurance to student loan consolidation can provide relief for graduates trying to make good decisions with a bewildering array of choices.

Catherine Serrin Niekro, vice president for marketing and communications at the University of Michigan Alumni Association, says that between 300 and 500 young alums up to 10 percent of a graduating class take advantage of GradMed, the short-term health insurance offered through the association to any graduate of the university. "The rates and the coverage are good, but the main benefit is the simplicity of it," she says. "It's an easy application, and coverage is nearly immediate. For college grads who have just come off of their parents' insurance, it's really helpful." Through the association, alumni can also purchase renter's insurance and home insurance. And association members can get discounts on everything from movie tickets to car rentals as well.

With today's students burdened with more debt than ever, loan consolidation can be another prized perk. "Students [and young alumni] get inundated with a lot of information about consolidation from many different companies," says Mandy Franklin, director of Affinity Marketing at Nelnet, which works with more than 120 alumni associations to offer student loan consolidation packages. Franklin notes that going through an alumni association for loan consolidation can provide peace of mind, since the association has presumably researched the company to find out if it's reputable.

But is it wise for colleges and universities to market a product that might just remind alumni how much they owe the school? Franklin frames that possible concern another way: "The goal is [for schools to help their young alumni] to make this debt and ultimately their lives more manageable."

A decade ago, landing a job right out of college could be as easy as sending out a few resumes. These days, prospects are a bit less rosy. Young alumni tend to value advice and events that help jumpstart their careers.

Niekro says one of the University of Michigan alumni association's most popular young alumni offerings is a mentorship program that allows recent grads to talk to experienced alumni working in particular fields. "The alums can talk to them by email, by phone, or in person, and they can find out how the alum got to their current position and what their workday is like," she says. The association also offers a job board, self-assessment tests, and connections to employers eager to work with Michigan alumni.

Through the Alumni Association of the University of Michigan, graduates of the school can get short-term health insurance, renter's insurance, and home insurance offerings. Members can even get discounts on everything from movie tickets to car rentals.

For Wartburg, in-person networking is the primary benefit for alumni, but as the college rolls out its web-based alumni programs, Coleman expects online networking to become increasingly important for young alumni. "Part of the attraction of the site for young alums is that there will be some older alums on the site," he says. "From a networking standpoint, if [young alumni are] looking for a mentor or for advice about something, this is a much more efficient, effective way for us to connect young and older alumni."

Wooster alumni in cities around the country, meanwhile, can attend happy hours with other alums and exchange business cards and advice. And more personal assistance is available just by asking: "If a young alum is moving to San Francisco and wants a list of people who work in banking, we'll provide that information," Nichols says. "We really want them to get connected with each other."

St. Thomas' Stephens says that it would be easy to sit at her desk and dream up programs she thinks young alumni might like but that would also be missing the point. "We want to be able to give young alumni exactly what they're looking for, whether it's more career resources, social events, or service opportunities," she says. "We want them to have a say in what's going on." To that end, St. Thomas' YoungAlumni Council helps set the agenda for alumni engagement.

About 30 council members convene regularly to help shape activities for St. Thomas' young alumni. "We try to give [the council] a lot of ownership in the programs and events, from coming up with ideas to seeing them all the way through to completion," says Stephens. Though many of the events are self-funded, the university will also kick in cash to help subsidize some events.

Members of Seattle Pacific University's Young Alumni Council have a more extensive role: Not only do they help plan events for their peers, they also plan events to raise money for student scholarships. "The scholarship is something that's fairly new," explains Laila Sharpe, the school's associate director of alumni and parent relations. "Adding that element of giving has made a difference-I think it's given them a sense of purpose," she says.

Both Stephens and Sharpe say the councils have had long-term payoffs, since many council members have gone on to help the schools in other ways, from volunteering to serving on the board of trustees. "The council members are really ambassadors for the college," says Stephens.

In the end, says Niekro, there is no single solution to the challenges of alumni engagement rather, the combination of programs and services help alumni of a particular institution feel connected to their alma maters.

"It's not just health insurance or just a job board or just a mentor relationship that's going to be important to an individual alum, but [rather] the sum of all those programs," says Niekro. "Those individual things add up to become a really valuable relationship."

Erin Peterson is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and a former editor in the Office of Publications at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

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