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Now You See Them, Now You Don't
Now You See Them, Now You Don't

Students in the virtual classroom still become real alumni

By John Pulley


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In the early 1980s, Theresa Poussaint dropped out of the University of Maryland system, moved to Philadelphia, married, started a family, went back to work, and eventually found her way home again. Coming full circle, in 1999 she returned to the University of Maryland University College, which has specialized in adult education since 1947.

In her absence, UMUC had begun experimenting with online education. The flexibility afforded by new media seemed ideal for working students like Poussaint, whose busy schedule of family and career obligations made it difficult for her to take classes on campus. Having grown up in an analog world, however, Poussaint didn't jump at the chance to be an online student.

"I was a little suspect," she says.

Dipping a toe into the waters of nontraditional education, she enrolled in a single online course, became an overnight convert, and began taking courses on campus and online. She earned a bachelor's degree in communications, and in 2005 she completed UMUC's online MBA program.

"I think it is a perfect format for people who are self-motivated and self-disciplined," Poussaint says. "It's not for everybody, but learning online was perfect for me."

Grateful for the opportunity to get an education that otherwise would have been unavailable to her, Poussaint donated $10,000 to UMUC for under­gradu­ate scholarships. An active member of the alumni association, she encourages other alumni of UMUC's online programs to give as well.

"I just love giving back in any way I can," says Poussaint, a manager of loss-prevention services who credits her academic degrees with advancing her career.

At a time of exponential growth for online education, graduates like Poussaint represent an expanding segment of college and university alumni. Until recently, however, fundraisers had largely overlooked prospects who had plugged into their institutions.

Now development officers are beginning to recognize the philanthropic potential of alumni who have completed online degree programs. They realize, as well, that the educational experiences of those graduates are substantially different from the experiences of traditional students at brick-and-mortar campuses. Therefore, they are seeking to recast nostalgia-themed appeals that try to pull at the heartstrings connecting alumni with their alma maters.

If development professionals learn to cultivate and solicit their online alumni, Poussaint and others who are already making financial contributions could become the face of philanthropy's future in higher education. But if fundraisers fail to engage these new prospects, a philanthropic windfall could be frittered away, and millions of prospective donors could become faces in the crowd.

Says Janet Polley, president and CEO of the American Distance Education Consortium: "It's an issue that universities should be thinking about now."

Feeling their way

Online education has been around for a decade, a blip on the higher education timeline. It is expanding, however, at an unprecedented rate. By the end of the year, the number of college students taking at least 80 percent of their coursework online could exceed 2 million people, or approximately 11 percent of all higher education students, says Richard Garrett, program director and senior research analyst at Eduventures, a Boston-based consulting firm that specializes in higher education.

Certainty regarding the future of online education ends there. Develop­ment professionals seeking to understand what motivates alumni of Internet-based distance education programs frequently bemoan the lack of reliable tools for cracking the code. Polley herself is unaware of "any systematic survey of major online providers of distance education to say how it has impacted giving." Absent clear direction, fundraisers tend to do what they have always done.

Take Poussaint's alma mater, UMUC, which enrolls 100,000 students worldwide, making it the 12th largest institution in the United States in total enrollment. Its development office looks very much like the fund­raising operation at a traditional college or university that focuses on major, corporate, and foundation gifts; the annual fund; and planned giving. The institution is midway through a $26 million capital campaign begun in 2004.

"The biggest difference is the challenge we have being a nontraditional school," says Dharma Selva, UMUC's director of institutional advancement. "A lot of people don't have the fuzzy warm feeling of coming on campus and having strong relationships. When they graduate, they are moving on to the next thing in life."

Hoping to keep alumni close, UMUC unveiled an online community last year that offers career-planning services and other benefits to alumni and helps them stay in touch with graduates all over the world.

"You have to improvise," Selva says. "The key thing is you have to build a support system. We need to give them a sense of 'We are here for you.' Most [online] schools don't have that."

Bob Holmes, CEO of the University of Central Florida Foundation and vice president of alumni relations and development, says the generosity shown to institutions by alumni is often a function of the degree to which these former students were involved in activities outside the classroom. (Approximately 30 percent of UCF's courses have an online component.) Unable to draw upon the iconic experiences of campus life-dormitories and dining halls, fraternities and football games-fundraisers must find other means of connecting with former students.

"Anything that would ground somebody to a university will increase their likelihood of contributing," Holmes says. "I don't know how [online learning] is going to affect their likelihood to contribute."

Different message

Fundraisers seeking gifts from graduates of online programs are testing different strategies, including couching their appeals in terms of gratitude, good sense, and green giving.

Tapping the gratitude of online alumni is a promising strategy for making connections, says Brenda Harms, a client consultant at Stamats, an Iowa-based marketing and consulting firm that serves higher education. A new division of Stamats that will focus on recruiting adult students is researching how to raise money from that market segment.

Harms' conviction, however, comes from the personal experience of earning a Ph.D. from Capella University, a private for-profit online institution.

"If online institutions didn't exist, I never would have started a Ph.D.," says Harms, who suggests that she might not have completed her doctorate without the advisers who guided her and the online students who became colleagues.

"When you see that your classmates are online at midnight working on a project, that's a bonding experience," Harms says. "You don't make connections with a whole lot of people [in an online program], but you make pretty significant connections. In some cases, I had more interactions with classmates online than I ever did at a face-to-face institution. Those connections will pull on the strings that make you pull out your wallet."

Alumni of online programs are likely to respond to fundraising appeals geared toward return on investment, since as students they tend to be older, more established in their careers, and more likely to take a pragmatic view of education as a means of career advancement.

Marcus Lingenfelter jokes that when he worked at the University of Virginia, "we didn't have to fundraise. ... Thomas Jefferson did all our fundraising," he says, referring to the university's traditions, its historic campus, and the pedigree of its founder. Now, as vice president for university advancement at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania, established in 2001, he makes the case for support anew each day.

The difference in fundraising approaches at UVA and Harrisburg comes down to "massaging versus messaging," Lingenfelter asserts. In that and other regards, Harrisburg faces the same challenges as online institutions.

"We will never have a traditional lawn walkway or campus concept. I do not anticipate that we will appeal to donors on emotion," Lingenfelter says. "This generation of donors wants more control and more return on investment, which is often seen as a bad term in higher education, but we use that term all the time with donors. We call it philanthropic investment. I think the online providers can make that same case to their donors."

And with heightened concern about wasteful energy consumption, dwindling natural resources, and environmental degradation, fundraisers can emphasize the inherent greenness of online institutions.

"I see online learning as part of the solution, not part of the problem," Polley says.

Not a virtual connection

Notwithstanding the appeals of online education, the tendency in some quarters is to view distance education as somehow second rate, a suggestion that might elicit a chuckle if raised at the United Kingdom's Open University. The distance-education institution serves more than 180,000 students and for three years running has led all institutions in England and Wales in student satisfaction.

Marvin Weinbaum, dean of Golden Gate University's CyberCampus, says that early on he instinctively took an apologetic stance with online students because he thought "folks in online classes were sacrificing a degree of intimacy they would attain in an in-person experience."

Weinbaum reassessed his position when he began teaching online and discovered a virtual environment that liberated people from many of the impediments that hamper social connections. In an online environment, he says, people aren't judged on their appearance, accent, or choice of dress. Though it may seem counterintuitive, Weinbaum discovered that online anonymity actually begets intimacy.

"In an online class, there is no back row," he says. "You almost have to redefine or reexamine what you mean by the word intimacy."

As for the impact on fundraising, "we have just really begun a serious dialogue of what the implications are," Weinbaum says. "We're just at the periphery of the discussion."

How, for example, do you reach out to alumni who returned to school when they were in their 30s and 40s and didn't date on campus, join a fraternity, or attend football games? he asks. And how do you replicate for online students the pomp and circumstance of educational milestones, including the final rite of passage?

"We've been trying to figure out how we celebrate someone's graduation," Weinbaum says.

A few years ago, CyberCampus officials encouraged students who were graduating from the university's online programs and lived near GGU's California campus to attend the commencement ceremony and meet their colleagues. The turnout was small, despite CyberCampus' 1,400 enrollment. (One-third of students enrolled at Golden Gate take online courses exclusively. Of that group, one-third resides outside California.)

For now, persuading online alumni to visit the university's actual campus isn't a priority for the development office, which has come to believe that alumni who established connections in an online environment often aren't interested in establishing a physical connection.

"A lot of them really don't want it," Weinbaum says. "Not everyone is breaking down doors to break bread together."

Officials at CyberCampus believe that connecting with online alumni-and staying connected-is a matter of aligning the style and content of communications with the mode and life cycle of cyber communities. Like comets, social connections made online-even in an education environment-tend to burn bright and burn out fast.

"It's striking how much you learn about people in these online environments," Weinbaum says. "Equally as striking is the feeling that as soon as class is over, all that is gone. Our challenge is to sustain this level of engagement, community, and communication. Bringing them together on the ground is a bonus and should be viewed that way. We don't want to rely on people having to meet [in person] to feel that they are part of Golden Gate University."

Lenore McDonald, director of alumni relations at GGU, says that "even the idea of having a reunion is a stretch because most of the students have never been in the same classroom with one another."

Recognizing that many former students came to the university to start, advance, or switch careers, she is helping to create alumni networks that continue to serve those objectives. CyberCampus alumni consume one-quarter of the career services provided by the university.

"The affinity with GGU is based on career," says McDonald.

Fundraising challenges

Debra Holcomb, GGU's director of annual giving, says the rapid growth of the university's online programs hasn't resulted in a discernible downturn in annual gifts, which total more than $4 million per year. Delineating the giving patterns of online graduates is difficult, however, because the fundraising software GGU uses doesn't differentiate between traditional students and their cyberspace peers.

The university is also nearing its $35 million capital campaign goal. Whether or not online alumni eventually will make gifts of the magnitude needed to complete a successful campaign won't be known for years. It is understood, however, that major gift solicitation typically requires intensive cultivation and one-on-one contact. People give to people, goes the axiom.

"You've got to get that personal touch in there," says Laura Fredricks, vice president of philanthropy at Pace University in New York. "Otherwise, the gifts might well be small."

So far, Golden Gate's efforts to meet online alumni in the real world have come up short. Turnout has been good at regional alumni events held in Virginia Beach, Boston, New York, and Washington, DC, says Holcomb, but "we haven't seen too many cyber students yet."

At England's Open University, realizing the philanthropic potential of its online students has become a top priority of the development office.

"We are at a point where we're saying 'This isn't sustainable,'" says Lucy Limb, the university's alumni fundraising manager. "If we want to maintain and grow our major gifts, we have to look beyond trusts and foundations to our alumni."

Future thoughts

Educational and advancement experts are sanguine about the prospects for cultivating institutions' online alumni-if fundraisers give them the attention they deserve. Not only will online education continue its rapid growth, observers say, it will challenge the market dominated by traditional colleges and universities.

Online education "could have a profound effect on institutions in the United States once parents overcome ... their desire to send their kids to prestigious institutions," says Herb London, president of the Hudson Institute, a DC-based think tank, and professor emeritus at New York University. "The prestige factor will become less noteworthy when, first, the cost of online education is demonstrably less than [at] better-known private institutions and, second, when it becomes clear that parents are not getting their money's worth at traditional institutions of higher learning."

Gail Siegel, an analyst at the DC-based consultancy Social Technologies, says the public's growing comfort level with cyber communities of all types, from online dating and gaming communities to Facebook and MySpace, bodes well for raising funds on behalf of online colleges. Even residential students have an expectation of being plugged in at all times.

The centuries-old practice of leaving notes on classmates' dormitory doors has become an anachronism, which is also true of more recent modes of communication.

"They text each other," Siegel says. "Millennials think e-mail is for grandmas."

She predicts that as education consumers, online and off, embrace virtual campuses and avatars through Second Life and other online communities, the divide between bricks and clicks will blur.

Online education is still nascent, but one thing appears certain: It's here to stay. Advancement professionals are wise not to ignore this growing segment of their alumni populations.

Growth Spurt. Maybe you are one of them, or you know someone who is. Almost 3.5 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2006 term, an increase of 9.7 percent from the previous year, according to the report Online Nation: Five Years of Growth in Online Learning. For the past several years, online enrollments have been growing substantially faster than those of overall higher education. So if you don't currently know an e-learner now, you probably will soon. Authors I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman, co-directors of Babson Survey Research Group, received responses from 2,500 colleges and universities, the most respondents in the report's five-year history. Read the report at www.sloan-c.org; click on "Publications" and "Survey Reports."

Independent Indeed. Higher education certainly makes up the majority of online education options, but independent schools aren't completely out of this market. Stanford University's Education Program for Gifted Youth-Online High School is a three-year independent school for academically advanced students. The online school, which started in fall 2006, is for students who might otherwise enter college without a high school diploma, live in rural areas or overseas, or are home-schooled. In addition to completing online work during ­the academic year, students also can go to Stanford's campus for eight weeks during the summer to do lab work and meet students and instructors. For more information, go to epgy.stanford.edu.

Keeping Their Distance. As the Internet takes over the world, distance education more and more means online education. Mentioned in the article above, the American Distance Education Consortium is a nonprofit association of approximately 65 state universities and land-grant colleges. According to the organization's Web site (www.adec.edu), ADEC has a small core staff that works out of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, coordinating efforts of the membership spread across the United States. However, ADEC went international with a foray to China in March 2007, cosponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to discuss distance education in rural areas. Read the 48-page report of the trip at extension.oregonstate.edu/eesc/documents/china.pdf.

Actual Help in the Virtual World. That darn World Wide Web can be so large and unwieldy sometimes. Imagine how it must feel for students trying to figure out which online courses or degree program to pursue. E-learning options abound, but not every online program will be the right fit for every student. The Web site eLearners.com attempts to make the decision process easier by offering scads of information about online degrees, programs, courses, and colleges in a systematic way. Users can create lists of accredited programs for any given subject or check out the eLearner Advisor to assess if they are ready to undertake online education. And, of course, the site also includes blogs and discussion forums. Check it all out at www.elearners.com.

About the Author John Pulley

John Pulley is a freelance education writer and was formerly a reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

 

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