General Education

What Makes a College or Grad School Alumni Network ‘Good’?

What Makes a College or Grad School Alumni Network ‘Good’?
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Thelma Adams April 24, 2019

What do you get with a bachelor's from UC Berkeley, an MBA from UCLA, and an MFA from Columbia? Sadly, not much in the way of alumni networks. A grad of all three schools (yes, seriously) explains.

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While I’ve chosen colleges by reputation–I have a BA in history from UC Berkeley, an MBA in Arts Management from UCLA, and an MFA from Columbia University—I never looked closely at these schools’ alumni network (nor at the alumni networks of any other schools I considered). I made a simplistic correlation: if it was a good school with powerful name recognition, it would have a good alumni network. And I made the next assumption: that the connections would work for me, not that I would have to work them aggressively.

Looking back on my career, I’d give myself a C-minus for alumni networking.

And I’m not alone. A 2019 Gallup study asked 5,100 graduates whether their undergraduate alumni networks had been helpful in their career search. Only nine percent graded them “very helpful” or “helpful,” while 22 percent gave grades of “unhelpful” or “very unhelpful.” By far the greatest number of students—69 percent—said their alumni networks were neither helpful nor unhelpful. For many students, alumni networks simply don’t contribute to their career trajectories.

What if I’d approached the subject of alumni networks differently and, like that Gallup nine percent, squeezed all the potential value out of this avenue in my job search? I would have had to start at the beginning, by prioritizing and then researching the alumni networks of the schools I considered (instead of just assuming I’d do fine with any ‘good’ school).

But how, when you’re sitting at your computer, scratching your head, reading happy alumni stories about attractive students culled from the general student body, do you assess whether that college truly has a dynamic alumni network?

What actually makes an alumni network ‘good’?

They say that money talks. If alumni donate money to the institution, it’s a good sign that they are active, supportive and revved up. In short, the alums liked, really liked the college where they’d already invested a pocketful of tuition money.

For a good list based on the numbers, look at the “Forbes Grateful Grad Index.” Dartmouth ranks number one, followed by Princeton. (Keep in mind that, for alumni of prestigious universities, parental giving is one way to secure legacy admissions for the next generation.)

Scan the list and you’ll discover that the small liberal arts Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, ranks third and Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina, places seventh. California’s Claremont McKenna College ranks sixth, South Bend, Indiana’s University of Notre Dame ranks eighth, and Virginia’s Washington and Lee University ranks twelfth. All these schools have strong alumni loyalty in terms of giving back; it’s not just the Ivy League where alums show their alma maters the money—and alumni pulling out their checkbooks indicate a lack of buyer’s remorse.

Are there other indicators beyond cash donations?

In evaluating whether or not an alumni network is “good,” you might also consider post-college recruitment rates, campus career-office employment rates, and how students rate the alumni network. For reference, Business Insider compiled a list of “25 colleges with alumni who will jump-start your career.” Taking the top spot is Dartmouth College, which boasts a median starting salary of $55,500. According to the site, “When it comes to networking and building professional connections, alumni are one of the most valuable resources Dartmouth offers its students.”

LinkedIn can be a good place to do further research. To investigate my undergraduate alma mater, UC Berkeley, I scrolled down to the school’s link on my profile. Clicking that link, I discover another link for the university’s alumni association. It says, “Looking for a job or considering making a career change? Search and contact other Cal alums….Join the Cal Alumni Network today. #networking #gobears”

Networking with alumni through social media? #Awesome.

Some schools have stellar reputations for their alumni network in specific industries–Yale School of Drama counts Meryl Streep, Angela Bassett, Sigourney Weaver, and David Alan Grier among their alums. Chapman University and USC in Los Angeles, because of their close proximity to the film and television industry, have close alumni ties and internship potential. And, often, those alumni return to teach as adjunct faculty–another great way for students to network with professionals active in their fields.

Syracuse University ranks #192 in alumni giving according to Forbes–but if one looks at the prestigious S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, the roster of successful alumni is impressive. A popular internship program ensures that students will interface with professionals during the course of their education–and these are Syracuse alums. Also available for enrollees is a portal to the Syracuse alumni network, a who’s who in the industry.

On the Syracuse site–and you can do similar research for other schools–tab over to their “Alumni & Friends” page. This is a rich source of data through links to the program’s alumni magazine, newsletters and reports on alumni returning to campus. Notable alumni include sportscaster Bob Costas, Emmy-Award Winning TV writer Dan Gurewitch from Last Week with John Oliver and 60 Minutes Correspondent Steve Kroft, among many others.

In this rapidly transforming information age, social networks can be critical for staying in touch and moving ahead–and, as it turns out, one of the most important networks is that of alumni.

According to the Harvard Business Review: “Alumni networks turn out to be an especially effective kind of social network. This is in part because people often self-select into undergraduate and graduate programs that have social groups with interests closely aligned to their own, which generates both a higher level of interaction and longer-lived relationships.” As you’re deciding which college best suits your needs and goals, make sure that you investigate the power of an institution’s actively engaged alumni to maximize the return on your education investment.

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