The following interview is with Carolyn Young, the Director of Continuing Studies at Western University in London, Ontario. Universities have a number of strategies in place to try to attract adult students for continuing education and professional development, but one group of students that is often overlooked are an institutions own alumni. In this interview, Young discusses some strategies universities can use to attract alumni and explains what some of the challenges to bringing alumni back are.
1. Do continuing education units typically have processes in place to reach out to the university’s alumni with ongoing learning opportunities?
What I’ve noticed is that there is a range of relationships between schools of continuing education and alumni. In my two years that I’ve been the Director, I’ve come across several schools that have an extensive partnership with their alumni; they offer discounts, gift certificates upon graduation, there are portals that alumni can go to the website so they get special arrangements or customized programs because they are alumni.
At Western, we are offering alumni a discount on selected personal interest courses. I would say our partnership is not extensive, but we know that we can do more on that. For example, one of the courses that we offer, that is a personal interest course… on art appreciation. A lot of our alumni flock to that course because [the professor] is well-known. …
We would like to do more. The reason why we feel such a strong commitment to it… is that there was a survey of Western alumni that was conducted in 2010 and one of the points that came back from the evaluation is that Western alumni would like more lifelong learning engagement. They are looking for more opportunities around learning to stay connected with the university.
2. Can universities attract these enrollments on the basis of being a graduate’s alma mater alone, or do they have to offer something extra to bring these students in the door?
I think a graduate’s alma mater has a strong advantage for a continuing education school. Alumni are very interested in continuing the relationship with this school once they’ve graduated. What’s important is to make it a meaningful connection and I think lifelong learning probably is the one of the best ways to make that connection meaningful and valuable and relevant.
For a Western graduate to come back and do a certificate in project management or to do a post-degree diploma, these are two kinds of programs that we offer that has a direct impact on their career. There’s some real connection that is made over that.
Our Western Alumni Relations has been very successful at the social and cultural engagement. I think that it’s time for Western Continuing Studies to step up and be engaging with Western alumni on professional development and personal enrichment learning programs.
3. What are a few strategies that a continuing education unit could use to attract their alumni?
I do know that other schools offer a discount across the board… for all non-credit learning programs. There are schools that offer that discount to alumni. One of the things that I think those schools have been able to accomplish with their alumni is a very practical but critical strategy and that is gaining access.
Right now, there are schools that have been able to get that contact information and send out their information about their programs to alumni, not all schools have that. Western Continuing Studies does not have access to Western alumni.
The first strategy to me is a very practical one, it is gaining access. Secondly, I think what’s really important is to offer programs that provide the quality of learning that they remember from their undergraduate or graduate studies. I think that quality encompasses relevance, so if we’re offering courses and programs that they see have a direct connection to their career or to their personal interests, that’s an important part of it. I also think that when we’re talking about quality, the registration process—just that experience of going to the website and going through the registration process—is something that Western alumni, and all alumni, they expect it to be seamless. They’re not looking for a lot of barriers along the way. We’re feeling very pleased and very confident about our future because we’re right now going through a new registration software implementation that is going to simplify that process for Western alumni. This is something that we will be launching in February 2013, so I think that that’s a critical step.
We also see that online learning is going to be another strategy that will definitely break open the gate for us with Western alumni. In this area that we live—in London, Ontario—there are about 130,000 Western alumni that live in the region. Worldwide, it’s 250,000. If we can get that many more people into our virtual classrooms, we see that as a very important part of it. We’ve hired an online development coordinator to add more online courses to our calendar, our course calendar, and we’re looking at some other options to really expand around online.
4. Do you have anything to add about how a continuing studies unit could better connect with their alumni and bring more alumni in for continuing education and professional development?
I think that one of the interesting opportunities—and this is something that’s just occurred to me over the last few months—is offering a free online course. There’s a lot of discussion right now about MOOCs, and I think that one of the ways that we could really get Western alumni’s attention is by offering a free online course so they can have the experience of online learning with Western Continuing Studies. That’s one of the things that I’m exploring right now, and I guess that that’s what I would recommend to my colleagues in continuing education. If you want to get your alumni’s attention, possibly a free course, a valuable course that’s meaningful, would be a significant way to grow that relationship.
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