Can Alumni Keep Colleges off the Cliff?

(And/or put out a safety net?)

As a marketing strategist working in higher ed for quite some time, I’ve witnessed—and contributed to—the impressive enrollment communications machine. Every cycle is a fresh attempt to woo prospective students with approaches that are “authentic,” recognizing that GenZ is wiser to marketing than past generations. Campaign after campaign, colleges and universities pour precious dollars into creative efforts they hope will fill the class, affording modus operandi for another year.

But the cliff is coming. And according to a gazillion experts, there simply won’t be enough students to meet the quotas of said colleges and universities. Some regions—sorry Northeast—are predicted to fare much worse than others, and it’s likely that elite schools will remain unscathed because, well, they’re elite. So, what are the majority of institutions to do? The gazillion experts unsurprisingly, and uncomfortably, suggest that something has to change.

At the start of my career, I spent a couple of years working at the alumni association of a large public university. During this time, I planned a plethora of alumni events, affording me the opportunity to meet a plethora of alumni. I was struck by the disparity of engagement. Although some alumni would work tirelessly with me to ensure a successful endeavor for their peers, many didn’t see a return on their personal investment.

Honestly, I was shocked to see how many more older alumni (40+ year reunions) engaged in the events, while younger classes had a fraction of the turnout. When I asked my alumni contacts why this was the case, the answer was clear: connections. Older alumni were better connected to their peers; they felt a stronger bond. Younger classes, however, were bigger and less familiar with each other as a whole. They didn’t have the connection, so they didn’t make the investment.

Like most, this university put out a magazine. Was it enough to keep the alumni connected to the community? Back then, not really. Has it changed? Admittedly, I don’t know. But since then, I’ve worked with many other institutions and I’ve seen alumni communications in all states of being. Some good, some pretty meh. And I have to wonder why colleges and universities aren’t putting the same amount of gusto into alumni communications (connections) as they are with enrollment efforts. It seems a bit short sighted—especially with said cliff looming.

A 2018 report released by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Associations states that “for the first time, public higher education is more dependent on tuition revenue than educational appropriations in over half of all states.” And according to the National Center for Education Statistics, tuition and fees are the primary sources of revenue for private institutions. Needless to say, it’s understandable that a steep decline of their primary revenue generators would cause a ripple of panic.

Yet, there is a spark of light in the looming darkness. While the student population is declining, alumni giving is rising. According to the CASE Voluntary Support of Education Key Findings, 2020-21, alumni giving rose 10.8%. Yup, during a financially straining pandemic. Why? Sue Cunningham, CASE President and CEO, states "As the nation’s institutions focused on their missions of teaching students, engaging in vital research, and serving the needs of their students and communities during an unprecedented year, people took notice and invested in the transformational work conducted at America’s colleges and universities. This is a powerful indicator of how valuable and valued these institutions are."

My interpretation: the pandemic freaked people out. But, Ms. Cunningham is right; there is a lot of great research and going-ons happening in our higher ed institutions. And one can only surmise that the more people learn about these accomplishments, the more apt they’ll be to give. Right?

So, let me ask you … is your institutional (if you have one) or alumni (again, if you have one) publication ready to do some heavy lifting? Do you have an editorial plan that supports your institutional mission while feeding alumni curiosity? Is the look and feel of your publication aligned with your institution’s brand, creating a sense of unity, trust, and legitimacy? And most importantly, in my opinion, do you know how to tell a good story—a really good story?

The cliff is coming, but alumni aren’t going anywhere. Invest in creating connections; (re)build the community; and remind them why you’re family. In other words, make sure your alumni have a reason to put out the safety nets.

Michelle Lansing is a consulting content strategist for 2communiqué and a freelance writer. Previously, she was the vice president of creative strategy at Zone 5 where she led creative efforts for a number of colleges and universities; she also served as the enrollment management communications strategist at Siena College. Michelle is the author of the children’s sticker storybook series, Finny and The Biff.