Leader: The art of giving and receiving

Universities have to support alumni with their careers if they wish to see graduates open their wallets in support of them

January 12, 2012

Fancy being buried in a coffin emblazoned with the logo of your alma mater? Or how about spending your twilight years reliving your undergraduate days in the stimulating environs of a retirement home on your old campus?

If that sounds a bit too much, you could always take a break with your old undergraduate friends through Alumni Holidays or the many similar providers. You could pay for the trip with your university credit card, drive to the airport with a car insured under an alumni discount scheme and bearing your old school's name on the number plate.

Savvy universities - led, as usual, by US institutions - are coming up with ever-more imaginative, if sometimes slightly crass, ways to engage with alumni. Starved of public cash, they need more than ever to extract money from graduates, who are themselves already saddled with heavy debt from tuition fees and likely to be feeling the pinch. In the UK, this will become a central concern as we lose public funding for teaching and follow the US into much higher student tuition fees (and greater student debt burdens) but with far less experience or success in fundraising.

However, just as, for an individual, higher education is not (or should not be) solely about a qualification, so for institutions, alumni relations are not - and must never be - just about money, however vital it may be.

In a market-driven system, where student choice determines funding and where brand loyalty will matter more than ever, new levels of sophistication are necessary.

Universities must build meaningful lifelong relationships with graduates. Alumni need to be convinced to give their time, expertise and, yes, money to their alma mater, and they need to be persuaded to join an army of brand ambassadors who promote institutions to families, friends, colleagues and employers.

"We cannot just be party planners," says Matt Herek, associate director of young alumni engagement (a title that illustrates exactly how nuanced the role is becoming) at Northwestern University, Illinois, in our cover story this week.

He tells his students: "Your diploma is a membership card, not a receipt."

In developing a deeper relationship, universities must offer alumni real professional opportunities that extend beyond the odd reunion. Graduates will want to see added value for their original tuition investment (which they may still be paying off).

Events such as the annual networking Saturday organised by the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business to bring together entrepreneurs and investors are on the rise. Yale University librarian Susan Gibbons has campaigned in these pages about allowing alumni to keep their "passport to a rich world of high-quality research information" with free access to the library.

Unlike the consumer products that some would have university degrees become, higher education can truly change a person's life - in terms of health, happiness, citizenship and, of course, career. The intellectual curiosity and analytical skills fostered at university can last a lifetime, and a fulfilling student experience - followed by meaningful engagement after graduation - can establish a rich commitment to the institution for life.

Don't dismiss that branded coffin just yet.

phil.baty@tsleducation.com.

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