As technological tools and academic program delivery formats have evolved over the past few decades, opportunities to pursue graduate degrees online have grown substantially. By fall 2018, more than one-third of all postbaccalaureate students (approximately 1.2 million) participated in online distance education, with about 31 percent pursuing their graduate degrees exclusively online (National Center of Education Statistics, 2020). As more students have completed online graduate programs, there correspondingly has been a growing population of graduate-level “online alumni.”
Graduate school alumni from exclusively online programs have likely had different experiences from those completing resident programs. Many such online alumni, while balancing their education with full-time careers and family obligations, have never set foot on the campus of their degree-granting institution and likely have had limited, if any, in-person interaction with classmates and professors. As the population of graduate-level online alumni continues to grow, more empirical research on online alumni engagement efforts will likely emerge, but the research to date has demonstrated that online alumni are “nearly as likely to engage in institutional support behaviors” as resident alumni (Berger, 2016, p. 137). As such, the time may be ripe for institutions operating in the online space to take a further look at the motivation of graduate-level online alumni to give back, which may mean practical contributions, not only financial ones. While examining the motivation of online alumni to give back, it may also be useful to look at methods of engaging online alumni as well as the benefits of so doing that may be realized by alumni, current students, and the academic programs of their degree-granting institutions.
I serve as a professor of practice within the master of professional studies psychology of leadership program (MPS) at Penn State University, a program administered exclusively online through Penn State World Campus. The MPS program is designed for working professionals seeking advanced education in the cultural and social aspects of leadership and attracts students from many industries.
In recent years, we have commenced a few initiatives designed to engage our growing alumni base and foster professional connections between our alumni and current student population. We have found that our online alumni are eager to give back in tangible, practical ways. So, what motivates the online alum? What opportunities to give back appeal to the online alum? Finally, what are the benefits realized from engagement with online alumni—for the alum, for current students, and for the program? I examine these questions further below.
Each online graduate program is different in substance and structure, and these factors may affect alumni motivation to give back. Students within our MPS program are typically enrolled because they are committed to becoming strong leaders regardless of what industry they work in. A large part of this commitment involves building relationships with people from different backgrounds and studying different leadership styles. Authentic leadership is one of several covered in depth within the MPS program. Students are taught the research-based benefits of authentic leadership, and such benefits may become ingrained in their makeup upon graduation. Part of becoming an authentic leader involves proactive efforts to make connections, share experiences, and help others achieve identified goals (George & Sims, 2007). Thus, by virtue of what they have learned within the MPS program, alumni tend to have strong intrinsic motivation and a desire to give back as part of their ongoing efforts to be effective leaders. While all online graduate programs may not have the built-in content that readily triggers alumni desire to give back in practical ways, research has shown that when faculty members build high-quality relationships with students, the latter are more apt to have stronger alumni loyalty and, in turn, are more willing to give back in nonmonetary ways (Snijders, 2019).
While alumni engagement efforts using online tools may be effective with both online and more traditional resident alumni, we have found our online alumni to be very receptive to the continued use of online tools, such as Zoom, in their efforts to give back to the program. This may be attributed, at least in part, to their regular use of such tools as students in the program. To this end, we launched a series of alumni interviews conducted via Zoom wherein a current faculty member interviews a select alum. Current students are invited to join such interview sessions in real time and may ask the featured alum questions relative to leadership, experiences, or recommended career paths, among other topics. These alumni video interviews are also recorded and later made available for public viewing on the program website.
To date, each alum interviewed via Zoom has expressed overwhelming gratitude for the opportunity to pass their perspectives on for the betterment of current students and to further market the program to prospective students.
In addition to these live alumni interviews, we launched a series of blog articles on the program website that compile alumni responses to a series of questions related to current-day leadership topics. The blog posts allow alumni to share their perspectives on complex topics; students can read these posts at their leisure. As has been the case with the live alumni Zoom interviews, alumni participating in the blog post series have voiced tremendous appreciation for the opportunity to provide practical advice to current students. In addition, the alumni’s substantive responses to the questions detailed within the blog posts are typically in strong alignment with many lessons covered within the program, and thus, such responses reinforce key program content.
These are just some of the methods we have implemented to date. Alumni have regularly expressed a desire to give back by serving as a guest speaker or panelist in forum discussions with faculty. So, there are many possibilities, but the key takeaway is that if high-quality relationships are built with students in online programs, online alumni may be highly motivated to give back in ways that benefit them, current students, and the program.
When asked to participate in program initiatives following graduation, alumni typically feel that the program genuinely cares for them, without any underlying pressure to make financial contributions. Beyond the sense of caring, however, comes the benefit of developing professional content that the alumni may use in building their professional profiles. Specifically, when an alum is featured in an online interview on a topic such as leadership, there is the built-in benefit for the alum to reference such interviews as professional content for prospective employers, clients, or customers to consider. Similarly, if an alum shares comments included within a publicly available blog post, they can highlight it on a resume or other professional profile. Alumni are also afforded the opportunity to network with students who may become future business partners or colleagues.
The benefits for current students in the program are also significant. Specifically, current students are given the opportunity to hear from alumni directly on how the program has helped in the pursuit of defined career goals. They also gain perspective on how to apply substantive academic content to practical workplace scenarios, which reinforces what they are learning in the program. As with alumni, there is also a networking benefit for current students as they pursue future employment or business opportunities.
The practical engagement efforts also greatly benefit the program. First, alumni who are featured within an online interview or blog post tend to speak highly of the program and may be apt to refer colleagues to the program, thus serving as a word-of-mouth recruiting tool. In addition, the opportunity to feature alumni content on the program website creates marketing material for prospective students, thereby potentially boosting enrollment. Finally, some of the experiences discussed by alumni in interviews or blog articles can be repurposed into new assignments within the program when courses are refreshed.
As our experience shows, building high-quality relationships with online students can heighten online alumni loyalty and instill a strong desire in online alumni to give back. As such, there may be great value for other online programs to think about ways of first building high-quality relationships with students while they are students and then extending those relationships when students become alumni. This type of focus can benefit alumni, current students, and the program and in turn create opportunities for all to succeed.
Berger, D. J. (2016). The relationship between academic program delivery method, alumni demographics, and graduate alumni engagement: A correlation study (Publication No. 10108876) [Doctoral dissertation, Ball State University]. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses A&I; Social Science Premium Collection.
George, B., & Sims, P. (2007). True north: Discover your authentic leadership. Jossey-Bass.
National Center for Education Statistics. (2020). The condition of education—Postbaccalaureate enrollment. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_chb.asp.
Snijders, I., Wijnia, L., Rikers, R. M. J. P., & Loyens, S. M. M. (2019). Alumni loyalty drivers in higher education. Social Psychology of Education, 22, 607–627. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11218-019-09488-4 [open access]
Paul E. Obidinski, JD, is a professor of practice in the master of professional studies in psychology of leadership program at Pennsylvania State University.