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Community Colleges Could Benefit From Better Alumni Outreach, Survey Finds

Four-year colleges have long made a high priority of maintaining relationships with their alumni, who offer a durable source of support for their alma maters. That hasn’t been as much the case at two-year colleges, where even what constitutes an alumnus—someone who earned an associate degree? a guy who took a class once?—varies from institution to institution.

The results of a new survey, conducted by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, highlight both the often feeble job that community colleges do in cultivating their alumni and the benefits for those that do it well.

According to data gathered from 133 institutions that responded to the survey, about 46 percent of community colleges dedicate only one full-time employee to alumni relations. At about 35 percent of colleges, that single employee works part time. The survey also found that community colleges’ alumni-relations staff members tend to be relatively inexperienced: About 50 percent have been in their jobs for two years or less.

Alumni-relations staff members often don’t have much money to spend on outreach. The survey found that the community colleges with annual operating budgets dedicated to alumni spent just $23,611, on average. About 40 percent of the colleges surveyed had annual operating budgets for alumni relations of $10,000 or less.

At the colleges surveyed, an average of 0.5 percent of alumni contributed financially in the 2012 fiscal year. Alumni giving constituted 6.5 percent of all donations at the institutions, on average.

The upside of such data, according to Paul Heaton, director of the Center for Community College Advancement at CASE, is that there is “enormous opportunity” for community colleges to improve their engagement with alumni. “There are very clear correlations between how often a school communicates with and engages with alumni, and how much they participate, especially philanthropically,” Mr. Heaton said in an interview.

Poor information—in particular, alumni databases that are often poorly integrated and updated—is among the biggest challenges facing community colleges that would like to do a better job of engaging with their alumni. In addition, how a community college defines what constitutes an alumnus can lead to an unwieldy mailing list, or one that leaves off potential supporters.

“You will have a student who took one class with you who’s going to be eternally grateful to you and wants to give back,” Mr. Heaton said. “Those people shouldn’t be ignored.”

Fortunately, he added, research shows that a majority of community-college students end up living and working in the nearby area. “In a lot of cases, these people are in your backyard, so they should be pretty easy to find and engage,” he said.

Mr. Heaton acknowledged that properly managing alumni data and pursuing better relationships with former students can seem like an unjustifiable expense for often cash-strapped community colleges.

“That’s the quandary,” he said. “Can a school afford to invest in a program that might take a couple of years to develop and mature so that it’s paying off?”

But colleges that find ways to engage with their alumni—whether as donors or, say, as resources for current students at the career center—find it well worth the money and time spent on reaching out, he said.

A more-engaged base of alumni can benefit a community college in any number of ways. “It’s not just the money,” he said.

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