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Engaging Catholic Higher Education Alumni: Should We Organize Ourselves Better?
Alumni networks benefit both Catholic colleges and universities and their students, but a lack of organization may be leaving much of their potential untapped
By Quentin Wodon
Alumni can be a great resource for Catholic universities, not only for donations, but also for advising students on their future career and for networking more generally. Alumni can also make great contributions in the classroom as guest speakers sharing their real-world experiences. One could also argue that for some research projects, engaging alumni brings substantial benefits.
A useful, albeit imperfect, metric for measuring university performance in engaging alumni is the giving rate, i.e., the share of alumni who donate to the university. On average, only 8 percent of alumni gave to their alma mater during the 2017-18 and 2018-19 academic years, according to data reported by U.S. News & World Report, but some institutions do much better. As shown in the table, one of the top 10 schools in alumni giving rates is an ACCU member (the College of the Holy Cross). Two other colleges are Catholic (Thomas Aquinas College) or Christian (Alice Lloyd College). In all, seven of the top 10 are liberal arts colleges, and the two national universities are small universities (in terms of enrollment) that also value the liberal arts.
Most of the schools in the table are highly ranked. This means that their graduates tend to do well on the job market, which in turn may enable them to give to their alma mater. But there also seems to be an association between the alumni giving rate and college size. Smaller colleges seem to do better, which is good news for Catholic colleges and universities because many of them are small (college size is actually a criteria for choosing a Catholic university, as noted in a previous article in this newsletter). Students may establish stronger links with faculty and peers in smaller colleges, and the feeling of belonging may be greater.
There also seems to be an association between the alumni giving rate and the type of school being considered with liberal arts colleges apparently doing well. This is again good news for Catholic colleges and universities since most have a liberal arts curriculum. Alumni giving is likely to depend on how strong the relationships are between graduates and their alma mater, and a key factor in this relationship is whether students were mentored by faculty. When asked who served as a mentor to them, recent graduates in a Strada-Gallup Alumni Survey mentioned arts and humanities faculty first (43 percent), followed by science and engineering professors (28 percent) and social sciences professors (20 percent). Professors from a business field of study came last at 9 percent. These statistics are affected by the share of students selecting various fields of study, but the mentoring role that arts and humanities professors play clearly matters.
Alumni giving can make a real difference in a college’s finances and in the life of students, especially those receiving scholarships. In fiscal year 2020, total giving to the education sector was just under $50 billion, according to the CASE Voluntary Support of Education Survey. Of that amount, $11 billion (22 percent) was given by alumni. The rest was given by foundations (33 percent), corporations (13 percent), non-alumni individuals (8 percent), and other organizations (14 percent), and much of that last category consists of giving through donor-advised funds and may thus also come from alumni, at least in part.
Alumni giving is but one of the metrics that can be used for measuring alumni engagement. Beyond giving, alumni networks may matter for students’ future careers, yet according to the Strada-Gallup survey, less than one in ten college graduates say that their alumni network was helpful or very helpful in the job market. Even among top universities, which tend to advertise the value of their alumni networks more, only one in six alumni say their network was helpful or very helpful.
Boosting Network Strength
What can colleges and universities do to strengthen the benefits from their alumni networks? In Alumni Networks Reimagined, a report published this year by the Christensen Institute, the authors suggest four roles alumni can play in postsecondary education, as (1) mentors to drive student success and persistence; (2) sources of career advice, inspiration, and referrals; (3) sources of experiential learning and client projects; and (4) staff for program delivery. The authors proceed to discuss a few ways to rethink alumni connections. While their suggestions speak to broadening alumni involvement, a recent study of alumni relations benchmarking data suggests that the resources U.S. colleges and universities are devoting to alumni engagement may have decreased slightly in recent years.
Engaging alumni is not easy. ... Figuring out what works and what does not is hard, especially when doing it alone.
Engaging alumni is not easy. Some schools do it better than others. Figuring out what works and what does not is hard, especially when doing it alone. At the national, regional, and global levels, in part to share experiences on alumni engagement, but also to promote engagement of alumni in Catholic education broadly, associations of alumni have been created, encompassing both Catholic K–12 and higher education. The global association that federates national and regional associations is OMAEC (Organisation mondiale des anciens élèves de l’enseignement catholique). The United States does not yet have a national association.
In the title of this short article, I asked, “Should We Organize Ourselves Better?” The we in the question represents Catholic colleges and universities in the United States. The country is unique in having close to 250 Catholic colleges and universities (for a list and data on each of those colleges and universities, see this directory). This diversity could be a great source of experience in good practices for alumni engagement, yet the lack of a national mechanism to gather and share those experiences makes such exchanges difficult. Sharing good practices among Catholic colleges and universities (as well as K–12 schools) could truly be a win-win for all involved.
Creating an association of Catholic education alumni for the United States would be a major undertaking, but as a first step, I am going to begin creating a simple, informal mechanism for sharing experiences in the coming year, as part of my volunteer work for the Global Catholic Education (GCE) project and in service to OMAEC. If you are interested in this initiative, I invite you to contact me. I am confident that the benefits will be well worth the effort. Thank you!
Quentin Wodon works in international development and serves as volunteer lead for Global Catholic Education.