What the Great One Might Say About the Future of Advancement—Part 1: Distance Learning Conundrum

Few higher ed advancement leaders would think of looking to the “Great One” for strategic inspiration and guidance. We all know the story: Wayne Gretzky was not the fastest skater nor the most physically endowed. Yet, he holds or shares more than sixty NHL records. When asked to explain his success, Wayne replied: “I skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.”


An urgent need to adapt

As I synthesize recent conversations with educational leaders—at graduate schools, along with public and private non-profit colleges—and review the most current research and commentary on the future of higher education (Nathan D. Grawe’s seminal book on future demand  jumps to mind), I’m struck by the contextual changes institutions will need to account for as they endeavor to augment the long-term involvement, commitment and philanthropy of their alumni. Led by changes in the demand for higher education, both in quantity and nature, it is already clear that institutions are making much needed adjustments to the “supply.”

Driven by opportunity or fear, schools continue to rethink how higher education is packaged and delivered to students. As such, an increasing number are meeting students “where they are,” versus asking them to meet us “where we are.” This often takes the form of more online/distance learning and degrees that better dovetail with the current job market. According to NCES, roughly one in three students at degree-granting postsecondary institutions was enrolled in a distance learning course in 2017 (up 2 percentage points versus 2016); 15.7% were enrolled exclusively in this form of degree (up 0.7 percentage points versus 2016).

This raises a critical question: will institutions, which are already enrollment-centric in their institutional brand development, be prepared to engage distance/online learners and secure their ongoing loyalty? In other words, will they be skating to where the puck is going?


It takes a new perspective on segmentation

At many institutions, alumni engagement plan development is informed by the demographic and behavioral attributes of individual graduates. As part of the plan, these attributes are used to inform the specific actions taken to foster engagement—the themes, content, design, media, calls to action, etc. For example, an alumnus who has given for ten consecutive years and participates in voluntary activities is messaged a little differently than an alumnus who has never made a contribution. An ultra-high worth alumna is treated a little differently than one who is much less affluent. This is a crucial aspect to developing effective fundraising efforts. But the truth is, in the current reality of higher ed, it doesn’t go far enough.

The increasing variety of student learning models adds a whole new dimension to the alumni engagement model. If centers of learning want to stay connected with those who chose a non-traditional path, they will need to recognize and respond proactively to fundamental  changes in the nature of alumni-institution relationships. Even more fundamentally, the definition of “alumni” itself may need to change. Institutions who offer different learning models and depend on the support of alumni will need to consider modifying their segmentation schemas to ensure messaging to non-traditional alumni is both relevant and resonant.


building a loyalty plan for distance-learning alumni

With a continuum of learning models and, therefore, a varying degree of student involvement with institutions, Development and Alumni Relations teams will need a distinct plan for distance-learning alumni. Moreover, the online learning universe is not monolithic: the attitudes and behavior of pure online students and hybrid online learners may very well vary considerably.  To win their loyalty, novel actions and treatments that differ from those you would employ with traditional on-campus alumni are essential. While the estimated potential of non-traditional graduates will remain important as you determine the resources to allocate to them, your approach to fostering each alumni’s unique long-term attitudinal and behavioral loyalty to your institution must be tailored. The following four steps are a good place to start.


Know what they value

The choice to access a post-secondary learning program online reflects a distinct context for the individual. In many cases, the individuals will be more advanced in their professional career and face more significant budgetary or family constraints at the time.  Their connection to the job market will likely be much stronger. This has implications in terms of what activities and content they value and how they prefer them delivered. For example, providing access to the school directory, career services may be valued. Likewise, encouraging them to an on-campus or regional event, to participate in a seminar or just meet a professor, may go a long way in building a bond that leads to philanthropy.


focus on emotional relevance

Affinity with your institution’s brand will generally be much weaker, depending upon the learning platform. For this reason, your institution will be less a part of how the individual defines themselves and there will likely be a continuum between, for example, those who chose your course on a MOOC and those who earned an online degree. This means the first step should be to make the institution’s relevancy more persistent and enhance the strength of the emotional connection. To achieve this, you’ll need to employ primary research to learn more about why they enrolled, what their perceptions of the institution are, what the institution has to offer of value. Your findings and behavioral data can shape a 12-month engagement plan to enhance the engagement of this segment.


maintain the long view

For a variety of reasons, including the absence of campus friendships that positively contribute to alma mater loyalty, expect lower participation rates from online students when they complete their studies. Despite this, you should design a cultivation strategy that recognizes that, in 5-10 years, some of these students may be wildly successful and interested in buying into your institution’s purpose—if, and only if, you have worked hard to connect their identity to your institution.


follow the (right) numbers

The metrics and benchmarks you use to assess engagement and philanthropy performance will need to be distinct in this segment. In addition to lower participation rates, open rates, click-through rates, activity participation rates and volunteerism will all likely be lower, ceteris paribus. The long term goal may be more related to identifying major donors than achieving great participation rates.


Predicting and understanding the causes of social change is always complicated. Leading organizations through this change, however, is more manageable. It requires deliberate and logical thinking, collaboration and a willingness to challenge conventional wisdom. As learning institutions find new ways to fulfill their purpose, Advancement teams will need to develop new approaches to fostering loyalty and contributing to the financial sustainability of the institution. That means looking to where students and alumni are going, not where they’ve been.

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