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Nudging Alumni To Become Lifelong Learners

There are strategies that higher education institutions could undertake to turn their alumni into returning professional students and lifelong learners. Photo by Liam Quinn.

Conceding that not-for-profit and public universities can’t match the near-inexhaustible marketing resources of for-profits, leaders of continuing and professional education units are taking a closer look at their own institutions’ alumni as an untapped recruiting pool.  Why, the thinking goes, should students stop needing higher education at age 22?  Couldn’t universities use their presumably superior insight into alums’ career aspirations and life milestones to beat the competition to the punch with well-timed, personalized reapproaches?

In theory yes; in practice, not often.  Partly because of how carefully Alumni Affairs and Advancement steward communications with graduates so as not to confound fundraising messages.  But in an honest moment, many of the continuing and professional ed deans my organization works with admit that their bigger challenge is making it worth alumni’s while to share personal information, and developing outreach strategies that speak to the costs, risks and barriers inhibiting alums from re-engaging as lifelong learners. Put another way, it’s a “product” challenge as much as a “communications” challenge.

The advantages to getting this right are so pronounced, however, that we’ve seen many universities devote thought and effort to solutions.  Here are some of the approaches we’re seeing gain traction:

Information-for-VIP-Access Incentives:  More institutions are promising alums “backstage access” to celebrity campus speakers or closed, industry-specific networking events in exchange for volunteering rich details about professional and personal status.

Faculty Outreach Campaigns: Recognizing that many students (especially non-traditionals) form closer attachments to professors than to the institution as a whole, many schools are re-engaging alums through messages about or from popular faculty.

Enrichment Memberships: In the “Era of Mass Longevity”, with so many active and affluent empty nesters, some schools are bundling unrestricted access to enrichment courses with other campus cultural and sporting events, often charging in the thousands  per year.  This is a creative way to smooth out the revenue base of enrichment  and Osher Foundation programming.

Career-Changer Portals:  Here, institutions create websites walking alums through the end-to-end requirements for entering a new career.  Master’s of Education programs have been the pacesetters here, with portals that explain the specific credentials are required to teach in each state, credit articulation policies, and salary ranges and major employers in the student’s home or destination region.  The idea is to reduce the “search costs” for students, aggregating into one place all the information needed to weigh the cost, risks and benefits of breaking into a new field.

Career Path Mapping: A handful of universities are forming long-term partnerships with area employers, mapping their continuing and professional education programs to the most common career paths of the most common entry-level positions.  The company’s HR department helps employees understand what skills and credentials matter for promotion along different paths, steering the employees to the best-fit university programs, which are often offered at a discount.  The university can then reapproach the alum later on with tailored offerings, anticipating the next educational need on the journey to the “corner office”.

Online Trial Courses:  Time and money pressures aside, one underappreciated obstacle alums face in re-engaging as lifelong learners is a nagging self-doubt that they can’t do the work.  Many haven’t been in a classroom for years, some have never taken asynchronous online coursework.  To reduce the costs and risks of finding out if the student can succeed, more schools are piloting “try it before you buy it” online open courses, where casual students can take an introductory open-source class free of charge, then apply the course for credit should they enroll in a related degree.

Variations of all these concepts are evolving quickly.  We’d love your ideas about effective ways to get the kind of rich personal information exchange and low-risk/low-effort pathways to re-engage alums as lifelong learners.  What’s working for you (and not)?