The old trope in politics is that Americans disdain Congress but love their own representative. Turns out it’s the same with college: Americans increasingly question the value of a four-year degree given higher ed’s skyrocketing costs, heavy debt burden and changing values. But surprisingly, amid broad skepticism of institutions in general, alumni are staying true to their schools.
Decades after graduating, they still find deep resonance and relevance in their transformative, coming-of-age experience. They take pride in their alma mater, value their education and would recommend their school to others.
Call them Alumni for Life.
In March 2023, we at Brodeur Partners, a communications agency, surveyed 526 Americans with four-year degrees, fielding what they thought of their alma mater and how it relates to higher education in general. The results helped paint a picture of how your alumni can better leverage the reputation of their respective schools.
A full 75% said they are “proud to be a graduate” of the school from which they graduated.
Pride can encompass positive feelings about an institution’s research, faculty, programs, service, campus, athletics or general prestige. Alumni can also take pride in their own academic performance, career achievements, ties in the alumni network and contributions to facilities and programs. An alumnus or alumna might simply be proud of one’s life and all the major chapters, like college, that it comprises.
Narrowing the filter, our cohort was asked if their higher ed experience provided a “good return on investment.” Two out of three agreed with that statement.
Although “return on investment” has financial overtones, an open mind with a refined critical thinking capacity and an appreciation of truth, artistic achievement and ethical behavior is also a fine payback on four years of tuition, room and board.
Respondents are generally happy with their higher-ed experience, but remember: They elected to enroll as long as six decades ago. Would they “strongly recommend” their school to a college-bound or prospective grad student today? The answer was “yes” for 70% of respondents.
Just to make sure, we measured propensity to recommend one’s alma mater another way, by calculating a net promoter score. It came out +25 for the entire set of respondents, according to out figure. That’s a strong score. More than twice as many respondents fell into the promoter category than detractor category.
What does this data mean for institutions?
Lean into your brand
Although you always need reasons to ask for gifts or celebrate your achievements, you don’t have to re-argue the case for your institution’s existence. Assume your alumni are already sold on the value of the place, the education, the experience and the mission. They’re proud of themselves for choosing the school, for completing their studies and for succeeding in life. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, there’s no reason to think Americans’ loss of faith in higher ed affects your alumni’s support of you.
When firestorms like those around affirmative action, “woke” curriculum, and controversial speakers arise, know you’re drawing on a reservoir of goodwill.
Deputize your alumni as ‘influencers’
In general, alumni are more likely to be promoters of their alma mater than detractors. So, don’t stop at soliciting support; rather, find creative and flattering ways of encouraging alumni to sell the school to the next generation. Regional recruiting days are one way. Alumni-generated social media campaigns are another. Reward and recognize your new influencers for their efforts.
Alumni involvement with their alma maters is rising with more than half of alumni we surveyed describing themselves as “involved,” up 9 points since a similar survey in 2016. But what matters most to respondents are experiential points of connection, up 17% as the preferred way of staying in touch. Think meetups, guest lectures, sporting events, holiday performances, etc. Alumni are also opening up across all communications channels. Even text messaging, long shunned by alumni, is rapidly gaining favor.
So forge ahead with confidence. Think big, feel the love and nurture it for the long term. Alumni love does not necessarily embrace higher education in general. It’s only for you and the unique experience your institution provided. They are you Alumni for Life.