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Two-year colleges are typically not known for their alumni relations. But as state cutbacks leave many of them with major shortfalls, more community colleges are turning to alumni outreach to make up the difference.

The Wake Technical Community College Foundation is part of this trend.

“Community colleges have not quite figured out how to engage their alumni as much as four-year [colleges],” said the foundation's executive director, O. Morton Congleton. “A lot of that probably has to do with sports,” in that most community colleges don't have athletic teams.

Congleton is hopeful that the foundation’s efforts can change that thinking. “What we did was, we created an affinity program and we used Nationwide [Insurance] as our first partner,” he said. “We’re in the last stage of our first major gift campaign… [the] strategy is from there, hopefully, for people to self-identify and start creating that momentum and then create a giving program from within our student body.”

According to Congleton, thus far the campaign has pulled in about $11.6 million, with a goal of $12.5 million over 30 months -- a considerable sum considering the college's average annual fund-raising had been "probably about $2 million." Congleton said the campaign has three focuses: "student success, professional development for faculty and staff, and technology."

Congleton said that Wake Tech's $50,000 take from the Nationwide partnership --  the affinity program in which the college gets credit for alumni who buy from the insurance company -- "spreads to those three areas."

If the foundation’s efforts work, Congleton said, it will be a long-term process. “I wouldn’t say we’ve been successful so far,” he said, “but we have put the pieces of the puzzle in place that hopefully will lead to that strategy working over the next 5 to 10 years.”

Maureen Hoepfer, director of alumni relations at Harrisburg Area Community College, similarly said that her college has "significantly increased its efforts" with regard to alumni relations.

"[W]e have beefed up electronic communication by establishing a monthly alumni e-newsletter, alumni-specific Facebook and LinkedIn sites and email updates from the college president," Hoepfer said via e-mail. "Alumni also receive targeted e-mail blasts when there is big news at the college.

"This is a change from the college's previous outreach strategy," Hoepfer said. "Until a few years ago, HACC primarily had social events to get alumni back on campus, but as the lives of alumni got busier, attendance at such events decreased. Based on alumni feedback, the college has focused its outreach efforts on offering alumni meaningful opportunities to return to campus and give back," she explained. "The alumni relations team has also been working with HACC’s recruiters to get alumni involved in open houses for prospective students. In addition, the college has established an alumni ambassador program, which is simply a network of alumni who agree to help with programs and projects at the college if and when they can."

As far as this level of outreach's staying power, Hoepfer said that decision would be more clear at the end of the year. The college plans to measure the success of the new approach at that time, comparing participation rates at events, giving and other factors.

Northampton Community College, meanwhile, has an advantage with regard to alumni outreach, in that the college has had an alumni program since 1975. As a result, "[o]ur alumni are advocates and our greatest ambassadors during tough financial times and also when times are good," Melissa Starace, Northampton's director of alumni relations said via e-mail.  "Continuous active engagement and communication with our alumni has enhanced the college's reputation in the community.  As a result there is a great sense of pride and ownership within the community for the college."

At Northampton, Starace said, "[t]he Alumni Board of Directors has strategically moved our focus from event programming to purposeful engagement activities supportive of institutional priorities.  Specifically, alumni now attend a statewide community college Lobby Day at the State Capitol each spring with students, the board partners with student groups to bring elected officials to campus, alumni serve on panels for the college's Student Leadership Panel and other student programming. In addition the alumni association support capital projects such as pledging gifts to campus priorities including a $50,000 gift to our new Monroe Campus, Tribute Garden, Alumni Association Scholarship Endowment, etc... and is becoming more involved with promoting the annual fund and being part of the stewardship process by calling alumni donors to thank them for their support."

According to a survey conducted last year by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), some forms of outreach are effective for community colleges, but the effectiveness is rarely evident because of the minimal amount of resources colleges typically devote to alumni relations.

"Community college alumni are willing to provide financial support to their alma mater -- community colleges just need to do  a better job of communicating to their alumni that support is needed and ultimately making the ask. The number one reason people do not give is because they are not asked," Starace said.  "An alumni survey ... provides evidence that community college alumni are donating to their alma maters even when they have also attended a four-year institution."

For instance, the survey found that one frequent responsibility of community college alumni relations employees, managing the annual fund, was “significantly correlated with positive financial outcomes,” and “[t]ime spent on the annual fund by the chief alumni relations staff member was also significantly correlated with the average gift per alumna/alumnus... indicating that the greater the share of time spent on the annual fund, the larger the size of the average gift.”

The obstacles, then, are staffing and resources. According to the survey, “[t]he results… suggest that although many community colleges have full-time employees who are dedicated to alumni relations, nearly one-half of those institutions limit the number to one staff member.”

"Typically four-year alumni and development programs are more deeply staffed than community college alumni and development programs," said Starace. "Many four-year alumni programs have existed on campus longer than community college programs.  As institutions continue to invest in alumni engagement efforts and see the rewards of an engaged alumni community I believe we will continue to see community college alumni and development staffing increase in size."

Community College Positions for Alumni Relations

  Full-time employees Part-time employees
Median 1.0 0.0
Mean 0.7 0.5
Minimum 0.0 0.0
Maximum 4.0 5.0
% of institutions reporting any staff 54.0 35.0

[source: CASE]

“The question and the challenge for schools right now is, is it worth the investment to do this?” said Paul Heaton of CASE, who co-conducted the survey, in an interview. “I think this research shows that if you invest in staffing, communications… it will pay dividends.”

Tapping into alumni relations seems like a natural solution to budget woes, according to Heaton. “You have a ready-made group of advocates, volunteers, people who can help in a number of ways in addition to providing financial support,” he said. “I think the intense interest in this research is evident of how hot a topic this is right now at two-year schools. The bottom line is it shows there is huge potential for community colleges to increase engagement by their former students; it’s just going to take resources to make that happen.”

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