Alumni relations used to be seen as nice to have but not central to the university’s mission. That’s changing. Increasingly, universities around the world recognize the role of alumni in maintaining the institution’s reputation and recruiting new students, while also mentoring students and helping them find jobs. And of course, giving back is increasingly important as government finances are under pressure everywhere.
But another fundamental way that alumni are important is that they are the outcomes of the educational process. When students pass all the requirements for graduation, this is not the final measure of success for a university. It is when the student goes out into the world and pursues a productive and a fulfilling life, the alumni experience in effect, that we see the value of a university education.
In fact, the notion that alumni are the ultimate “product” of education is part of an important new research initiative. Purdue University and Gallup undertook the largest representative study of alumni ever to measure their job and life satisfaction. In 2015, the Gallup-Purdue national survey found that 77 percent of U.S. alumni agreed or strongly agreed that their education was worth the cost. (The group’s own findings highlighted the fact that “only 50 percent strongly agreed.”) The survey also found that alumni were about two times more likely to agree that their education was worth the cost if they believed their professors cared about them as a person.
The Gallup-Purdue findings point to high quality relationships with professors, mentors and other students and “meaningful experiential opportunities” as contributing to a higher perceived value of a college education. These elements even significantly decrease the impact of high debt on the perception of the value of the education.
These kinds of relationships do not necessarily stop with the conferral of a diploma. The Gallup-Purdue Index did not consider whether the experiences of alumni since their graduation affected the perceived value of their education. It would be interesting for them to consider this going forward, especially given the substantial amount of energy being devoted to alumni engagement.
Since Yale first organized its alumni by class in 1792, American colleges and universities have been at the forefront of the now global expectation that universities should stay in touch with their graduates and facilitate a community among them for their benefit and for that of the university. One wonders to what extent the high global value placed on American higher education is related to the exceptional efforts of most of its universities to continue meaningful relationships with and among alumni.
To get a sense of why this might be a particularly interesting research question, one can also look outside education to other knowledge- and relationship-intensive enterprises. For example, the global consulting leader, McKinsey and Company, features its alumni network prominently as part of its brand, as a key to its recruitment efforts and as a network of contacts that adds tangible opportunities to its business success.
When joining McKinsey, one anticipates not only an interesting and rewarding experience while on staff, but also a longer period as an alumnus who will continue to draw on the experiences and relationships within the firm and with others who have shared the McKinsey experience.
So much of our experience of the world is made of relationships that we often overlook in analyzing “how things work,” which leads to a focus on learning discrete tasks and managing specific transactions to make and move things. The difference with relationships is not only that they carry meaning for us, but that they do not come with expiration dates. Some, as in the most meaningful alumni relationships, last a lifetime.
Eugene R. Tempel Dean