Colleges experiment with engaging alumni of online programs

How does an institution connect with students who’ve never been on campus?
By: | Issue: September, 2016
August 30, 2016

As growing numbers of students pursue degrees online, a new constituency in higher education is being created: alumni who have completed their studies without setting foot on campus.

That presents a challenge for those of us in alumni relations. Given that the No. 1 reason alumni stay connected to their colleges and universities is a positive student experience, how can we build lasting relationships with alumni whose interactions with their alma maters have taken place largely online?

Little has been written about how to serve alumni who went to college online—even as their numbers swell. In 2013, the latest year for which data is available, 2.7 million students—more than 13 percent of all U.S. students—took all their classes online or through other distance education.

Penn State World Campus, the online arm of Penn State University that started in 1998, now has 18,000 students and almost 12,000 alumni. When students enroll in our degree programs, they aren’t just paying for an education—they’re paying for the promise of becoming part of the Penn State family, one of a network of 645,000 living alumni.

Creating emotional connections and lasting bonds with online students starts while they are still in school, just as it does with traditional students. These bonds don’t benefit just the alumni organization or the institution. Research shows adult students who are at risk of dropping out are more likely to stay in school when someone is encouraging them.

Extending invitations

Perhaps the answer lies within the alumni themselves—both traditional and online. Last year we worked with the San Diego chapter of the Penn State Alumni Association to pilot a program that connected alumni with online students.

San Diego-area World Campus students were invited to join local alumni at a tailgate, a networking event and a holiday party that had previously been an adults-only affair. Family members provide critical support for online students, so it was important that we include their children.

We know online students want to get involved—at an annual fall celebration the San Diego chapter holds for students leaving for Pennsylvania, online students responded to the invitation at a higher rate than face-to-face students.

Following the success of that pilot we began meeting with other alumni chapters that wanted to be more inclusive of online students. World Campus students, many of whom are juggling families and jobs, accompany us to those meetings to provide a first-hand account of being an online student—a foreign concept to many older alumni.

Part of the family

The alumni association, with its more than 177,000 dues-paying members, is a tremendous resource with a well-established infrastructure. Its members can be found in every state and around the world—just like our online students.

While some online students jump right in and get involved—one World Campus student is vice president of the Baltimore alumni association chapter—others feel more disconnected. Yet, our online graduates join the alumni association at a higher rate than graduates of any Penn State’s academic colleges—that’s how much they want to be part of this family.

Many of our online students are eager to pursue networking and career opportunities. The alumni we connect them with can provide internships, mentoring or even employment.

So far, I have more questions than answers, but I feel like we are on the right track. As one Philadelphia area student said, a networking event with alumni provided not just career information, but also “the opportunity to feel like a Penn State student.”

The goal—creating emotional connection to our institutions and promoting our students’ individual academic successes—is the same as what we seek for every student. I hope that others will join me in my pursuit of solutions for engaging the adult, online student. Personally, with all that online students invest, I don’t want to let a single alum down.

Roxanne Shiels is alumni strategist for Penn State Outreach and Online Education. She can be reached at