It goes without saying that the quality of the student experience has an effect on the sense of connectedness that alumni feel with their alma maters after graduation. That, in turn, influences their propensity to give and become regular donors. Many variables affect student satisfaction, and the subtleties and nuances are sometimes hard to apprehend. There is, however, a growing body of literature on the subject, and some striking patterns are emerging.
One recent report by Julie Bryant, Scott Bodfish, and Dawn Stever of Ruffalo Noel Levitz used a Student Satisfaction Inventory (SSI) to determine if certain aspects of student satisfaction are more influential on alumni giving than others. Their findings were revealing. Surprisingly, the areas of student satisfaction most correlated to alumni giving have nothing to do with the quality of instruction or the perceived prestige of the institution. Rather, the quality of the relationships students had on campus was far more influential.
In their research, the two most statistically significant areas were (1) the degree to which a student feels he or she knows what is happening on campus, and (2) the ease with which a student can get involved with campus organizations. Other key areas include, feeling as though faculty, advisors, and staff care about one as an individual, and access to faculty after class and during office hours.
While many institutions rightly see student satisfaction as playing a critical role in both fall-to-spring persistence, and fall-to-fall retention, they are perhaps less likely to see the correlation to alumni giving in the long-term. That is starting to change, however, as more data on the correlation between the two become available. Also changing is the role of alumni/development professionals in affecting the student experience. While there is precious little that advancement staff can do to influence student-faculty relationships, there are number of things that can be done to foster a sense of connectedness.
- Communicate the history and traditions of the institution to students early on, and help them come to see that they are now a part of its heritage.
- Increase networking opportunities for students through meaningful interactions with alumni.
- Provide students with multiple avenues for representing the institution, whether through phonathons, ambassador programs, or other types of engagement.
- Give students meaningful ways to steward alumni donors, through TAG days, thank-you note writing, and thank-you calls.
- Educate student project leaders about campus crowdfunding opportunities that help them connect with their peers, faculty, and staff.
- Develop student programs that encourage the development of a culture of philanthropy on campus that then extends beyond graduation.
- Coordinate with Career Services programming that regularly invites alumni back to campus for mentoring current students, and for enumerating the benefits of maintaining a relationship with the institution after graduation.
It would seem that the literature would confirm much of what many development shops are already doing, but it is well worth the time to reevaluate current practices, particularly at strategic planning time. To be mindful and intentional about student satisfaction, and the factors affecting it, is an investment in alumni giving for the long-term.