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Making Their Presence Felt
Making Their Presence Felt

Online graduates are poised to have major impact—despite the absence of a strong campus connection

By Andrew Morrison

Diana Ong/SuperStock/Getty Images

Last summer, the University of Liverpool welcomed the 4,000th graduate of its online programs to its alumni community. This is a significant milestone in the expansion of our international footprint considering that just five years earlier the university had enrolled half as many online.

Equally as important as the growth of our online enrollment is the considerable role these graduates play in the university community. Many of them have stepped foot on campus just once—at commencement—and have not had campus experiences that lead to lifetime memories or forged bonds. One might wonder how they could have any affinity for the institution.

Yet these graduates demonstrate remarkable interest in engagement, starting with commencement. All online students are invited to graduate alongside their campus counterparts in Liverpool, and between 50 and 60 percent of them travel from their home countries to don a cap and gown and celebrate their achievements.

Online graduates contribute significantly to our alumni relations programs and are uniquely positioned to engage with and support their alma mater. From leading local chapters to boosting recruitment activity and participating in fundraising events, these alumni are already making their mark on the institution.

Students resembling alumni

The University of Liverpool serves about 21,000 students on our campus in Northwest England. Some 10,000 students across 153 countries are enrolled online in one of 23 master's and doctoral programs, making Liverpool the largest provider of fully online degrees in Europe. By comparison, in 2007 around 2,000 students were completing one of two online degrees offered at Liverpool.

Through a partnership with U.S.-based Laureate Online Education, we conduct our online programs through a sophisticated virtual classroom. The focus is on collaborative learning with students from around the globe, who complete structured, twice-weekly assignments in eight modules, followed by a dissertation, per degree.

Pursuing an online degree is a serious undertaking, requiring 25 hours of study per week, and this, together with the cost of studying online and the flexible nature of learning, attracts a student demographic notably different from undergraduates attending on campus.

The majority of online students are mid-career professionals "up-skilling" or senior managers and directors, many with comparatively high levels of disposable income and occupying positions of influence. In a 2012 survey of our online alumni, 92 percent were employed and had an average of 12 years of work experience. Their average income was $85,000 compared with $29,040 for new campus-based graduates; 1 in 5 served on a company or charity board; and around 50 percent owned stocks, shares, or other investments.

From a philanthropy and alumni relations perspective, online students and alumni instantly align on our alumni life cycle with those who are established in their careers, in a position to contribute to the university, and ready to engage.

Wired for affinity

Our initial fears about lower levels of affinity for online graduates have been entirely misplaced. By their very nature, online programs attract people who are enthusiastic about lifelong learning and proactive in their social and educational development. The intense commitment necessary to complete a degree while working full time engenders a sense of pride, affinity, and willingness to give back to the university, sentiments more commonly found in older traditional alumni who have been engaged for many years.

In a survey, our online graduates described their education as "life changing"—74 percent said their degree had directly benefited their career—and therefore express a desire to give back in recognition of their experience. The enthusiasm for personal and career advancement or change that led them to undertake an online program also manifests itself in a keenness to join and participate in alumni networks.

We have no campus- or online-exclusive associations, networks, or chapters because we believe inclusiveness boosts community engagement. Feedback from an online MBA graduate who is the vice president for the wealth management arm of a New York–based bank affirms this strategy. This alumna, coordinator of the area's alumni network, says she felt an increased sense of belonging after meeting campus-based graduates at a network meeting. Our alumni associations in Malaysia and Singapore have welcomed online graduates into the fold by amending their consitutions to allow online graduates to become members.

Several of Liverpool's international alumni associations and networks now have online alumni engaged on their committees. Online graduates from Ireland, Switzerland, Germany, Nigeria, the United Arab Emirates, France, Canada, and the United States serve as presidents, chairmen and chairwomen, and ambassadors (Liverpool's version of chapter leaders). An online graduate based in Toronto now sits on the University of Liverpool Alumni Board.

Critical masses

This involvement in governance mirrors the wider participation of online graduates at alumni events. During the past two years, the university has hosted around 30 events outside the U.K. and supported an additional 40 organized by our associations.

At the launch of our two newest alumni associations, in the Cayman Islands and Ireland, online students and graduates comprised 51 percent of attendees. Overall, between a third and about half of those attending all alumni events have affinity through an online degree.

Not only are online graduates markedly enriching areas where communities of campus-based alumni are already assembled, they are providing a critical mass to regions where alumni numbers have previously been too low to establish a network.

We've seen the most growth in alumni in Africa, the Middle East, and the Caribbean. With more than 2,000 current students, Nigeria is projected to overtake the United States as our second-largest alumni community by 2017. Well-established alumni bases will also grow—our Canadian community should double in population in five years as a result of online programs.

The number of online students who will graduate by 2016 is projected to triple, and we are seeing stronger concentrations of alumni in areas of strategic interest, such as parts of Southeast Asia, the United States, and the Middle East.

Merging constituencies

Alumni networking events generally have become an opportunity for campus-based graduates to meet and reminisce about the university, for online students and graduates to meet their virtual classmates in person, and for both groups to discuss their learning experiences and join a diverse community. For the majority of online alumni, the opportunity to become involved starts at commencement. We roll out the red carpet to give them every opportunity to immerse themselves in the university and the city of Liverpool through meet-and-greet events, speed-networking sessions, campus and departmental visits, and Beatles and Liverpool Football Club stadium tours, as well as a reception hosted by the vice chancellor exclusively for online graduates.

Back in their respective countries, in addition to association meetings, online and campus-based graduates take part in management or career-related webinars, delivered by the university via the online-learning platform through which online graduates completed their studies. With themes ranging from career support in the economic crisis to business leadership, these events bypass geographical restraints to facilitate engagement of alumni wherever they live.

Accustomed to engaging across virtual platforms, online graduates are active in the university's official alumni Facebook page and LinkedIn group, and they contribute to country- and subject-specific online forums. Online MBA graduates, in particular, are extremely active in the management school's online groups.

Support group

Thanks to these collaborative engagement efforts, online alumni are making their mark across the university. They are more centrally involved than campus graduates in helping recruit the next generation of students. Liverpool recruits students to the online program through multichannel marketing and information events, and in some parts of the world—such as Jamaica, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa—alumni exclusively deliver these sessions. In the last three months of 2012, for example, alumni delivered a quarter of all recruitment sessions arranged in Europe, North America, the Middle East, and Africa.

Our partners at Laureate conduct alumni focus groups to gather feedback about how we can improve our online courses. As a result of those sessions, we've had alumni step forward to broker partnerships that have been beneficial to the university. On Grand Cayman, for instance, cohorts of government employees are now completing a University of Liverpool online degree through the government's Civil Service College.

This level of alumni involvement may be the tip of the iceberg. According to the results of our 2012 survey of online alumni, strikingly high percentages are interested in supporting the university in many areas, such as becoming an alumni ambassador (49 percent) or mentor (47 percent), and participating in a focus group (49 percent).The survey also asked alumni about the types of events they would consider attending. Each of the 11 event types, ranging from networking breakfasts to guest lectures, drew interest from around 70 percent of respondents.

These numbers are significantly higher than those from a similar survey of campus-based alumni conducted in 2011, again reflecting the different nature of online graduates.

Giving back

How does this interest and engagement affect fundraising? Results to date have been mixed, and early indications suggest that high levels of engagement are even more vital to successful fundraising efforts with online alumni than campus-based alumni.

Online alumni at the higher end of our engagement scale have been receptive to solicitations, particularly in countries with giving cultures. Our New York alumni ambassador, a racehorse owner, made a substantial gift to the university's Philip Leverhulme Equine Hospital appeal and, along with our online alumni board member, has pledged to our million-pound fundraising initiative "1,000 for £1,000." A fundraising lecture in Toronto, attended largely by online graduates, brought in additional support for our Benefactors' Fund, while other events have also resulted in gifts from online alumni.

Integrating online alumni into our annual giving program has not been as successful, with the participation rate less than that of campus-based graduates and initial feedback indicating a reluctance to donate to funds that specifically support campus-based students and facilities.

Perhaps it is too early to draw conclusions about fundraising from Liverpool's online graduates, as the cohort is composed of comparatively recent graduates who mostly live outside the U.K. There have been fewer opportunities to solicit them and receive feedback. However, survey results indicate that more than 50 percent of online alumni believe it is important to support the university financially—compared with 38 percent of campus-based graduates—so the university is exploring the introduction of a tailored fundraising activity that would appeal to online graduates.

Untapped potential

As the number of universities offering online programs increases around the world, development and alumni relations teams should welcome these plugged-in constituents into their communities. Online students and alumni can significantly enrich traditional alumni networks, and their connection and contributions to an institution should not be underestimated.

About the Author Andrew Morrison

Andrew Morrison is the alumni relations manager (networks and volunteers) at the University of Liverpool in the U.K.




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