Every year, your university puts effort and resources into recruiting the best and the brightest students. However, you may still be missing out on your recruitment powerhouse — the value of a strong alumni network.
Traditionally, we think of university recruitment as PowerPoint presentations focusing on the university’s rankings, courses that the university offers, the state-of-the-art gymnasium, or the beauty of the campus itself. However, all of these things offer a temporary benefit when considering the prospective student’s life as a whole. Your students will only be walking around that beautiful campus, attending interesting classes, or working out in that new facility for about four years of their life. After graduation, it is likely that the physical value of your university will decrease as alumni move away from campus, receive their diploma, and begin their post-college careers.
But the goal of a university is to provide lifelong value to alumni — to help them gain critical thinking skills that will prepare them for living in the real world and thriving in their careers. Consequently, recruitment officers would do well to emphasize the overall brand equity of the university. Considering the fact that people are paying thousands — and sometimes hundreds of thousands — of dollars for higher education, demonstrating the value that a university education will bring to students’ careers is paramount.
The brand equity of a business is described by David Aaker as “a term used to describe the value of having a recognized brand, based on the idea that firmly established and reputable brands are more successful.” When students consider attending a particular university, the brand equity of a school obviously factors into their decision. Students go to Stanford not just because they expect a top-notch education, but also because they think a Stanford degree will offer life-long value that will help them secure good jobs, lock them into a powerful alumni network, and more. The brand equity of Stanford goes far beyond an education, as it will bolster students and alumni’s success from the moment they step on campus for orientation until well into their retirement years.
In another example, Harvard’s perpetual grade inflation scandal shows that the actual time a student spends enrolled in a university is just a fraction of their education’s lifelong benefit. Harvard’s median grade is an A-, and the most frequently conferred grade a regular A. But for the notoriously selective university, the real accomplishment is getting accepted in the first place — that Harvard acceptance letter opens the door to thousands of potential job opportunities, grad school prospects, and more. Reasoning that its impressive brand equity is enough to equip students for future success, Harvard deliberately offers them smooth sailing through its courses.
A university’s brand equity is undoubtedly important for past, current, and future students, so how can a university increase it? Beyond hiring Nobel-prize winning professors or building luxurious campus facilities, the key to easily increasing brand equity lies in activating the university’s alumni network.
Find the Most Valuable Asset in Your Alumni Network
Most current students and recent graduates are in their early twenties, and they generally want to connect with other alumni close to them in age. While younger alumni can share stories of impactful internships or post-graduation resources among themselves, those resources won’t be valuable to 30- or 40-year-olds in the alumni network who are further along in their careers.
On the other hand, older alumni in their 50s, 60s, and beyond can provide a wealth of knowledge and advice to people at various stages in their life, making them a key asset to your university’s alumni network. They have been recent graduates, new parents, managers, and executives, so they can offer something of value to people at all stages in their personal and professional lives.
With Baby Boomers working far longer — and at higher labor force participation rates — than expected, the job market is facing what MarketWatch writer Quentin Fottrell has dubbed “a logjam.” Generation X workers are stuck in middle management roles, while Baby Boomers remain at the top of the corporate food chain. While this has potentially detrimental economic impacts, it offers an opportunity for students to receive career support, job recommendations, and advice on professional development practices from Baby Boomer alumni while they’re still at the peak of their career.
Older people have been traversing the working world for decades and have the wisdom that inevitably accompanies experience. They can not only offer advice on career trajectory, but also on life and the decisions that have gotten them where they are today. Marc Freedman, author of Prime Time: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America, talks about “reconnecting, restarting, and building bridges [from Baby Boomers] to the next generation.”
Although the collective knowledge and experience of your university's alumni network is extremely valuable to students, accessing it isn’t easy, particularly during an era of social distancing. At the same time, with the job market plummeting and job openings becoming few and far between, graduates need the help of their alumni network more than ever.
Adapting to the Times
The solution is to digitize your university’s valuable assets. By creating a virtual knowledge-base of professional, career and life advice that everyone in the alumni network can tap into 24/7, regardless of their location, your university can bring value to your students and alumni no matter where they are in the world. By harnessing the collective knowledge and experiences of the alumni network, next-generation alumni engagement platforms like CueBack offer value to alumni wherever they are and whenever they need it.
Beyond creating a knowledge-base, your university needs to ensure that each student or young alum sees content that is relevant to their life challenges and goals. For example, an MBA student is likely to be interested in another alum’s story of how business school prepared them to become a successful entrepreneur. Conversely, that student would have little to no use for advice about how to pursue a career in medicine. To tap into the full potential of their alumni network, universities must ensure that each alum sees content that is personalized to them. For this reason, CueBack micro-targets content to each alum’s interests, goals, and priorities to ensure that each alum only sees what’s meaningful to them.
Why Personalization Matters
At the Connect West CASE conference in March 2020, one alumni relations professional lamented that some alumni are reluctant to engage because they aren’t “famous'’ or “wealthy.” The truth is that every member of your alumni network has something valuable to contribute, whether it’s a story from their college days or a helpful piece of advice. A knowledge-base creates an opportunity for inclusiveness.
Your alumni network is like a library, and each alum is represented by a book containing all the knowledge, experience and wisdom they have accumulated over a lifetime. Some books may have more chapters than others, and some may be best-sellers. However, all are of interest and can offer something of value to at least one other person. Through personalization and targeting, those pearls of wisdom will fall on more receptive ears.
Moreover, personalization matters to students and alumni who come from unique backgrounds, and who may thus be in need of additional support. For example, I myself am a first-generation scholarship student. My mum was a non-English speaking migrant who brought up four children by herself. When I struggled at university, she wasn’t able to help, as her own education had been interrupted by WWII. I didn’t have an extended family support network to lean on, as I never had grandparents, cousins, nieces, nephews, uncles or aunts. I ended up dropping out of university (though I did go back years later and obtain bachelor’s and master's degrees).
During the years that I struggled at university, I wouldn’t have listened to the advice of an alum who grew up in a wealthy suburb, with a father who was an executive at a major company and who paid for tutors and extracurricular activities that we couldn’t afford. That ‘voice’ wouldn’t have spoken to me. On the other hand, I might have listened to someone who had overcome similar challenges. Personalization ensures that every alum can connect with someone in their alumni network who can give them advice that is relevant and applicable to their own lives.
A Brand Equity That Lasts
Current students and recent grads aren’t the only ones who benefit from having a thriving student-alumni relationship. Baby Boomers who choose to give their time, resources, and connections towards giving back to the student body experience the proven psychological benefits of giving back to someone who was once in their place. After they give, many of these alumni experience what some researchers call a “helper’s high.” Brain scans of those who give to charity show that giving stimulates the mesolimbic pathway (the reward center of the brain), releasing endorphins that create a sensation so good it’s addicting.
If universities can tap into their alumni network and encourage alumni to begin building connections and helping each other, they will create an invaluable resource that will undoubtedly appeal to prospective students. Students will perceive the university as having a lasting benefit, and after doing a cost-benefit analysis of attending the school, will be more likely to attend. But this entire process begins with connection — recruitment directors must find a way to unite the university’s alumni and foster a sense of togetherness as a result of their shared alma mater. Finding a way to get alumni, especially Baby Boomers, to reminisce about their college experiences and how these experiences impacted their lives is the key to building a powerful alumni network — and, by extension, increasing brand equity.