Alumni/ae engagement and an elephant named Debt

Alumni/ae engagement is the topic du jour in higher education circles. Development staff, desperate to re-connect with grads gone AWOL, fork over big bucks to consultants hawking strategies ripped from back issues of CASE Currents, the trade magazine for advancement professionals.

Included in the high-cost wisdom are such gems as:

  • Today’s students are tomorrow’s alums. Engage them early and often.
  • Grads from 50, 30, or even 20 years ago are very different from recent alums. Segment your approaches.
  • Know who your alums really are. Assumptions are usually wrong.
  • And speaking of assumptions, don’t assume you know what alums want from your school. Ask. Frequently.

Nothing wrong with the advice, except that it ignores a really big issue. The proverbial elephant in the room.  I’m talking student debt.

This just in from the Pew Research Center: nearly one in five households (19 percent) in 2010 had outstanding student debt, up from 15 percent in 2007 and double the percentage from two decades earlier. The more junior the alums, the heavier the debt load. Among households headed by someone younger than 35, close to 40 percent have a school loan.

Per the research, “about half (48%) [of young debtors] say that paying off that debt made it harder to pay other bills; a quarter say it has made it harder to buy a home (25%); and about a quarter say it has had an impact on their career choices (24%).” The Pew team didn’t ask what student debt has done to charitable giving, but directors of annual funds know  – and it’s not good news.

Coaxing gifts from deep-in-debt alums is about as easy (and likely) as squeezing water from stones.

“But wait,” you say. “It’s not just the money. Efforts at engaging alums aim at creating ‘evangelists’ for the school.”

To which I say, “Dream on.”

The drip, drip, drip of monthly loan notices erodes institutional loyalty. Lending agencies get the payments. Dear old alma mater gets the blame.

If you’re hoping for good words and student referrals from this gang, think (again) about stones and water.


So what can colleges do to (re)engage deep-in-debt alumni/ae? If it’s that pesky “elephant” you’re after, the following three steps are a good place to start.

1. Name the crisis. Campus communities need to say the word “debt” out loud and in as many venues as possible. For example, consider including stories in the college magazine about alums who are paying down debt early. The Parents Association might sponsor workshops for moms and dads who are struggling to counsel young adult children about debt. Homecoming programming can include seminars on family finances and managing debt.  In other words, what if, instead of ignoring the elephant, campus leaders acknowledged debt and called it out by name?

2. Own the crisis. Institutional leaders – board members, administrators and faculty — need to ‘fess up to their part in perpetuating an economic model built on easy availability of student loans. No exemptions. No excuses. The long-term consequences of in-debt alums – to themselves, our institutions, and the country –are everyone’s business. In other words, what if, instead of trying to pass the elephant off as someone else’s problem, institutional folks accepted ownership?

3. Tame the crisis. Accepting blame is well and good, but unless action follows, it’s all noisy gongs and clanging cymbals. Institutional leaders (see above for definition) must move beyond talking about new ways of doing higher education, to actually trying some. From prattling about prioritization to making the tough calls. In other words, what if, instead of letting the elephant continue running wild, campus communities declared, “We’ve had all we can stand. We can’t stands no more!” and then got to work?

Follow these three steps, and alums will notice. That’s a promise. They may even (re)engage. That’s the hope.


  1. This is one I’ve tried a number of ways to tackle, but it has felt as if the institutions cover their ears when this subject comes up. Thanks for exposing the problem too,

    • I think institutional leaders cover their ears out of despair. It’s almost impossible to think of financial models for private colleges that don’t depend upon student loans, at least not with really drastic change. And who wants to put their careers on the line for that? Needless to say, this post didn’t get a lot of amens from the administration corner.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. One Minnesota Christian college recently announced slashing tuition costs by 30%–which is both encouraging and concerning given that Christian colleges have significantly lower endowments than other private colleges. I’m working with a Christian college right now who’s developing a very innovative approach. What if Christian venture philanthropists started funding innovative models? Thanks for calling attention to this very important reality, Rebekah.

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