Continuing Education and Alumni Engagement: Evolving the Lasting Alma Mater RelationshipEmily Joy Bembeneck | Associate Director of Pedagogical Innovation in the Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies, University of Chicago
Frequently, I see headlines talking about how continuing education units are perfectly positioned to become houses of innovation on campus, how lifelong learning is the new way to think of higher education, and how extension schools are the right place to investigate higher education’s role in a changing labor market through alternative credentials.
While there are a multitude of ways to consider these opportunities, one possibility that is rarely taken full advantage of is how these opportunities could be leveraged to engage the institution’s own alumni. Alumni are usually positively predisposed to the institution and can be not only an additional market for CE, but an enthusiastic population open to innovative approaches in lifelong learning.
Typically, alumni engagement involves reminding alumni of their great experiences at the home institution and cultivating eventual financial gifts from those former students. While this has been effective to some extent for decades, institutions could achieve more by providing more value to their alumni. I speak of educational value beyond the undergraduate experience that most alumni think of fondly. Alumni are also professionals and thus also have the need of professional development and education. Beyond professionals, alumni are individuals with active recreational interests, some of which may involve intellectual and/or educational pursuits. Were the institution to see itself as an ongoing educational provider to students throughout their lives and learning phases—undergraduate/graduate, professional, recreational—its strategy toward reaching alumni would change. The effect would be a growing value to alumni and a continual reason for alumni to participate and give back to the institution meeting their lifelong educational needs.
Of course, the possible benefits available from such a changed perspective do not come without obstacles. Collaboration between continuing education and alumni development offices faces many challenges, which, if not overcome, can lead to missed opportunities in alumni engagement through ongoing professional education and other forms of lifelong learning. Partnering effectively to take advantage of these opportunities requires a shift in not only how institutions think about what they provide to their alumni but also how continuing education and alumni relations units think about what engagement can mean.
Alumni engagement programs often rely on in-person events organized by regional clubs and focused on alumni’s professional lives. While these are career-focused events, the outcomes are more centered on networking than on learning. This shift of the university from education provider to networking facilitator after graduation is an outcome of an assumption that the product/service the university provided to alumni has been fulfilled. That is to say, they graduated with a degree, therefore they no longer need education. It can take a dramatic mindset shift within the development organization to think of alumni as perpetual students rather than former students, but this change of perspective leads to additional opportunities for participation and giving.
On the other side of the aisle, continuing education units face their own challenges. While most continuing education units provide ongoing professional programs that complement traditional degrees, they often do not have a robust strategy around engaging alumni. As former undergraduate/graduate students, traditional alumni may have different expectations on their institution than those that most continuing education units expect their students to have. For example, the academic standards of rigor and the intellectual culture that alumni expect may be those of the undergraduate or graduate program, which may differ greatly from those within non-credit professional programs. Alumni may expect the full student privileges they recall from their early degree, whereas many continuing education professional students receive a different student privilege package. Recruiting alumni to professional education programs may take a marketing approach that partners with the alumni communications group and includes an awareness of changes necessary to meet the expectations of their particular institution’s alumni while also taking advantage of the relationship alumni already have with the institution.
Collaboration between continuing education and alumni relation must begin with an assessment of their engagement philosophy. For continuing education, engagement means student engagement—enrollments, completions, graduations and return enrollment. For alumni relations, engagement means having a touch point with alumni, cultivating warmth, and creating opportunities for giving. These are vastly different paradigms of engagement, partly because institutions think of alumni primarily as being in the final phase of their lifecycle with the university. The first step to any collaboration between continuing education and alumni relations is finding a bridge between those two kinds of understanding. That bridge is recognizing that alumni can and should be ongoing and perpetual students of what the full university has to offer.
Engaging alumni in professional education programs is not the only way to partner effectively with alumni development offices. At Chicago, for example, we couple the online learning expertise from the continuing education unit with the alumni data and relations expertise from the development office to create an innovative approach to digital alumni engagement in the form of a perpetual intellectual community built on a social platform. In this online community, alumni are able to engage with each other and with faculty around interesting and relevant intellectual questions. In addition, the community provides a space for alumni to have the sense of still being a part of the university. Providing persistent opportunities for alumni to engage intellectually, regardless of geography, creates a sense of perpetual value for alumni and thus can contribute to an effective giving campaign.
Communicating to alumni that the university still has education opportunities for them may also create a shift in the way alumni think of their own relationship with their alma mater. Training them, if you will, to consider their institution as a home base for professional development as they grow throughout their career is an additional necessary step requiring collaboration between continuing education units and alumni development offices. It is not enough for us to view alumni differently—it’s necessary to convince them to identify as ongoing students of the institution as well.
Through the combined efforts and expertise of continuing education and alumni development offices, institutions could build a more interesting and nuanced educational lifecycle that sees alumni as ongoing students throughout their lives. In this way, universities can expand their impact, their effectiveness, and their ability to prove value to their alumni and achieve goals of both engagement and giving.
Author Perspective: Administrator