Deep Dive: Turning Students into Alumni Ambassadors

by Rachel Bishop | March 2, 2020
Deep Dive: Turning Students into Alumni Ambassadors

Deep Dive: This blog takes a deeper look at alumni engagement. It dives into how institutions can turn students into alumni brand ambassadors.

In our alumni blog series, we have focused on why alumni relationships are crucial to the success of institutions. For example, alumni can help recruit prospects. They can provide mentoring, internships, and career opportunities for students. They can provide needed revenue by returning to campus as lifelong learners or by making private donations.

Although it’s not easy to re-engage alumni who have moved and detached themselves from an institution. And, it can be difficult to change a brand impression once it is set in memory. Colleges should continue to support and engage alumni. But they should also focus on shaping a positive brand value among current students. After all, current students will soon become alumni. With the right strategy, institutions can turn students into alumni brand ambassadors.

Satisfaction and attachment

Decades of research show that two main factors drive alumni giving and loyalty. The first is satisfaction with one’s undergraduate program. This includes both social and academic experiences.[1][2] Satisfaction can be defined as the degree to which an institution meets or exceeds a student’s expectations. Also, satisfaction means the perceived value of the undergraduate experience. This refers to if alumni say their education was worth the money invested.[3] But recent research shows that only 40% of graduates of four-year institutions strongly agree that their education was worth the cost.[4]

The second highly related determinant of alumni giving is psychological attachment. This is a deep and lasting bond that connects a student to their institution.[5][6] Students who are attached in this way are far more likely to volunteer and donate as alumni. Yet only 18% of graduates state that they feel attached to their institution.[7]

turn alumni into brand ambassadors
Download The Student Retention Guidebook for more information and helpful strategies to increase graduation rates.

Colleges and universities need to ensure that undergrad experiences are truly valuable to their students. Remember social exchange theory and the norm of reciprocity. Alumni are more willing to give back to their alma mater if they feel they received something of value. They have to feel the benefits of their degree were worth the cost. The good news is that almost all strategies that cultivate a student’s love for their institution are related to student support. This also increases student retention and engagement rates, as noted in The Student Retention Guidebook. In fact, emerging research shows that investment in support services can grow institutional revenue and improve financial stability.[8] Therefore, institutions should nurture strong feelings of attachment among students before they graduate. The long-term gains could be exponential.

Factors that foster attachment/satisfaction

There are five undergraduate experiences that create emotional attachment and satisfaction with institutions.

1. Faculty and mentor relationships

Faculty play a vital role in students’ lives. Of all campus staff, students usually spend the most time with their professors. Students appreciate faculty expertise. They often seek professors’ opinions about majors and careers. In fact, research shows that students who received good advising are more attached to their institution.[9]

Students who interact with their professors outside of class are much more likely to donate to their alma mater.[10] This is partly because students want to feel that their professors care about them and are invested in their success. In fact, students who report that their "professors care about me as a person" are 6.2 times more likely to become attached to their alma mater. Further, students are 4.1 times more likely to become attached when they feel they "had a mentor who encouraged me."[11] Institutions are more likely to turn students into alumni brand ambassadors if those students have strong relationships with faculty and mentors. It is important to build these relationships early and to sustain them throughout students' journeys.

2. Academic experiences

Academics have a strong impact on both satisfaction and attachment.[12][13] The odds of being attached to one’s institution are 5.5 times higher if alumni agree with the statement “I had at least one professor who made me excited about learning.”[14] Alumni who feel that they were challenged in class and received academic support from their institution are also more likely to donate. Alumni who agree with statements such as “the campus environment emphasized devoting time to academic work” and “the institution provided support to help [students] succeed academically” are much more likely to donate to their alma mater.[15]

Deep and experiential learning opportunities are also important. Participation in varied educational activities, such as work-based internships and senior research projects, makes students more likely to give later on.[16] When students are very interested in a topic, they want to be able to engage deeply and learn as much as they can about it. In fact, students who work on an engaging project that takes a semester or more to complete are 2.2 times more likely to feel attached to their alma mater.[17][18]

Interestingly, college GPAs correlate with alumni giving. The higher the GPA alumni achieved as students, the greater the likelihood that they will donate as graduates. Students who earn higher GPAs in college than they did in high school give larger average gifts than those who had the same or lower GPAs in college as compared to high school.[19] Again, the norm of reciprocity shows that students who are grateful and satisfied with the value of their academic experience are more likely to give back.

3. Social experiences

Students are more likely to become satisfied alumni when they feel they know about campus news and can get involved with activities.[20] In fact, the odds of being attached to one’s alma mater are 2.7 times higher if a student is “extremely active in extracurricular activities.”[21] Involved students are also more inclined to donate as alumni.[22][23] One factor that makes participation so rewarding is the sense of belonging and the positive friendships students develop as a result. Even living on campus increases the likelihood of alumni giving.[24] Those who live on campus are more likely to form social bonds with peers and have more opportunities to get involved in activities. These positive social experiences are crucial as institutions work to turn students into alumni brand ambassadors.

4. Preparation for the workforce

Career readiness is one of the greatest predictors of alumni satisfaction. Alumni are much more satisfied if they feel their coursework helped to develop job-specific and analytical skills,[25] which have been shown to predict job success across almost all industries and organizational levels.

Students also want to know how the topics they are studying now can be used in future careers. In fact, students are 2.4 times more likely to feel an attachment to their alma maters if they have the opportunity to “apply…learning in the classroom” to “an internship or job.”[26] Students who are able to apply learning to real-world situations are also more likely to donate as alumni. Data from nearly 100,000 alumni who completed college in the past 20 years as part of the Gallup Alumni Survey show that grads who see clear connections between their coursework and later employment “place the highest value on their college education.”[27]

This is very important for liberal arts majors. These students face scrutiny in a current culture that values practical skills such as those gained in science, technology, or business fields. Alumni of liberal arts programs report higher levels of satisfaction if they received career advising or if they saw how their studies in college would relate to future careers.[28] It’s important to note that perception of value is not about the amount of income earned after graduation but the relevance of what was learned to their careers.

5. Inclusive culture

Inclusive campus cultures produce attached alumni.[29] The degree to which alumni feel that their campus culture was student-centered predicts the likelihood of donating to their alma mater.[30] Students want to feel they are valued members of their campus community in many ways. This could be social inclusion, having input on campus decisions, and feeling respected in the classroom. For example, when institutions invite students to attend campus social events, those students are more likely to donate in the future. [31]

Students also want to know they have a voice and that their opinions will be heard and respected. Around 70% of college students state they prefer a learning environment in which they hear different points of view.[32] They also want to feel comfortable sharing their own beliefs, even if those beliefs are not common. Graduates who felt relaxed when sharing opinions in class are more than twice as likely to become attached to their institution. Yet the 2019 Gallup Alumni Survey found that only 30% of students felt comfortable when expressing a different view.[33] Therefore, colleges and universities have a chance to increase student satisfaction, retention, and alumni engagement by improving campus culture to make all students feel welcomed and included.

Learn more about how to turn students into alumni brand ambassadors

To learn about solutions for producing satisfied and attached graduates, download our ebook below.

* Special thanks to our guest author, Alice Anne Bailey, PhD, a Higher Education Consultant.


For a list of references cited in this blog, click here.

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