Investing in Alumni Networks

I wrote previously about Pandemic Entrepreneurship—ways in which people have been forced to change in order to adapt to the new world we live in, and I don't think there's a better example of it than the restaurant industry.

Yet another example of restaurants experimenting out of necessity. (via @mbaratz)

As we approach the end of the school year, we're starting to see a range of perspectives from higher education on how they are approaching the Fall Semester.  Will they welcome students back to campus or will they go remote?  Will incoming freshman opt to take a gap year?

It's also been interesting to see how these perspectives vary based upon level.  For instance, graduate programs—particularly MBAs—have slightly different incentives and constraints from universities that are purely undergrad-based, or vocational.

It's a tough position to be in all around.  Like the restaurant industry, there are so many different people's livelihoods intertwined with whether these institutions open up and whether they even survive.

I largely believe that the top schools with great brands will find a way to survive and return to some semblence of "business as usual", though it may take drastic cost cutting or otherwise.

But the schools that sit outside that, especially those that have not invested in an online offering of some sort, may need to consider more drastic measures in order stay afloat.

Underlying this is price perception—the ability to maintain and justify a certain tuition level for the prospective buyer, the student.

If I were not a school with a great brand and I was finding myself with fewer and fewer options, I'd consider investing in increasing the visibility of the alumni network and finding ways to create value for those people.

Ultimately, higher ed is perceived by a prospective student as a pathway to a better career.  If they are valuing their tuition based on the educational experience (remote/online vs. in-person), it's a losing battle altogether.  That is, if a prospective student simply feels like they're missing information, then they're simply going to shop by price and find the highest quality alternative.  And, unfortunately for higher ed, there's a ton of competition out there to satisfy this demand.

However, if you can frame the educational opportunity as an onboarding experience into an alumni network, you're no longer shopping by price and trying to get the best deal.

Arguably, for many—especially for MBAs—that is what you're buying with your tuition.  And, many graduate programs already do lead with this, but only from the perspective of finding jobs.  That is, they'll parade a list of logos that represent the companies at which their graduates were hired.  They present themselves—the schools—as gatekeepers.

I think there's a tremendous opportunity for more.  Find ways to be of value to the alumni that go beyond simple social events.  Just simply creating spaces engage—like email lists or forums—is no longer sufficient.  Perhaps even consider that alumni have a set of responsibilities and duties they need to fulfill in order to benefit from the network, itself.  Like any product, it'll take time to develop.  You'll need to see what does and doesn't work, and commit sufficient resources to iterating.

Then, collect the success stories and invest resources in telling them well—not simply a list of great individual achievements, but new opportunities which were made possible by the network.  Such stories can also serve to teach people how to use it, while simultaneously marking the value of such a system to prospective students.

Obviously this is conceptually easier said than done.  But, innovation in this area represents the largest untapped opportunity that universities have proprietary access to.  

There's no shortage of venture capital flooding the markets to fund startups that are all taking their shot at existing institutions up and down the stack, and most if not all are using that capital to subsidize a price war.  Going head-to-head against that is going to hurt, especially during a pandemic.

However, what these upstarts can't compete on is the untapped value of your alumni network.  It's unique leverage to you, if you choose to use it this way.  But it, starts with treating your alumni less as a database of leads for donations, and more as an opportunity to be helpful.