Published on 2019/09/23

The EvoLLLution | What It Takes to Keep Track of Online Alumni
Alumni of online programs can be among a university’s most committed supporters, but only if the university engages with them contextually during and after their enrollment.

Thousands of students graduate each year from online degree programs and those numbers are growing.

Online programs appeal to many students, especially to those where schooling is secondary to careers and personal responsibilities. In a study we conducted last year comparing the philanthropic behaviors of alumni of online—as compared to campus-based—programs, we found that alumni of online programs give generously to the institutions from which they earn degrees. In fact, at one institution in the study, alumni of online programs donated up to 12% more than alumni of campus-based programs within the first three years after graduation. However, donations of online alumni seem to be time-sensitive in that more donations from them were noted early after graduation (often within the first year or two), rather than over a longer period of time.

This reinforces the importance of keeping track of alumni of online programs distinct from other students/alums so that advancement and alumni relationships staff can reach them in a timely fashion. Unfortunately, many institutions do not segment alumni of online programs from alumni of campus-based programs. This was a primary reason why several institutions that we invited to participate in our study could not do so. They simply didn’t have the requisite data because they could not tell which alumni were graduates of online programs and which ones graduated from campus-based programs.

If institutions want to know which alumni are graduates of online programs, there are many processes available to achieve that goal. One way is to use program codes if institutions use Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems. There are other options as well. For example, at Northwestern University, the majority of online programs are distinct to the School of Professional Studies, they are still able to track by degree program through their student and alumni database; and as is also an option within ERPs, where they don’t label their alumni as online or on-ground students.

“We have a system where information from the student database feeds over to the alumni database” and that has been useful, according to Northwestern’s Elizabeth Lach, Director of Development for the School of Professional Studies. Lach also emphasized the importance of asking early in the process, “What do you want to do with the data? How do you want to engage your alumni? And what do you need in order to do that?”

Many colleges and universities take pride in the notion that “a student is a student is a student.” While that is an excellent approach to program quality and student support, it makes it nearly impossible to keep track of alumni of online programs. More to the point, treating students well and providing them with an excellent education does not require being uninformed about them. To the contrary, segmentation of student data during and after matriculation has numerous benefits to students and institutions.

For instance, according to Kim Siegenthaler, Director of Mizzou Online at the University of Missouri-Columbia—where they do segment student data by instructional delivery type using an ERP—“it has been immensely helpful to look at this discrete student group to compare their success in courses, their persistence at the university, their enrollment trends, credit hours they take per semester as compared to campus students… and to develop services for this group.” She also mentioned the benefit of segmentation of student data for “external reporting such as for US News and World Report.”

Potential financial gain is not the only reason to keep track of alumni of online programs. In fact, alumni of online programs are often well positioned within their fields to mentor other students. They can also provide insights related to new disciplinary trends that can impact curricula. In addition, alumni of online programs are often grateful to institutions for the flexibility provided to pursue their educational goals and dreams, so they remain loyal and engaged.

It is important to note that data segmentation while students are matriculating is one part of the equation; the other part is for that segmented data to be transferred to advancement and alumni offices after graduation. That way, the data can be used while students are in programs and afterward when they might be most willing to donate—in a variety of ways—to their institution.

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