Alumni Attitude Survey 2009

They love their alma mater, ICView, and a whole lot else, but there’s room for improvement, according to a recent survey. by Keith Davis

“Saying that graduates love IC isn’t an empty phrase,” says Marsha Eger ’70, executive director of alumni relations. “The numbers show that IC alumni feel a strong connection to the College and like to promote it to others. In fact, 91 percent of respondents told us that, given the chance, they would attend Ithaca College again.”

There are more than 50,000 living IC alumni out there — and whether the defining experience of their generation was World War II, Vietnam, Watergate, the end of the Cold War, the “Dot-Com Revolution,” or 9/11; the vast majority of them love Ithaca College. According to online and phone surveys about alumni attitudes and 12 alumni focus groups, all conducted since late last year, alumni have a high opinion of their alma mater and very much value the education they received.

Alumni also reported the College is doing a good job communicating with them. They feel they are receiving just the right amount of e-mail and mail communication, and that ICView is the most important way to find out what’s going on at the College. [Editor’s note: Thank you very much!]

But not everything’s perfect. Several alumni, especially those in the focus groups, said they would like to see the College using the alumni website to create networks through Facebook and other social media. The alumni relations office anticipated this concern, Eger says, by launching a Facebook page and connecting with the alumni website last August. Alumni also want more career guidance. Young alumni in particular have asked for help with the transition years after they leave Ithaca. And although alumni across the generations hold Ithaca close to their hearts, the College is not a priority when it comes to volunteering and financial support. This was a disappointing result for the institutional advancement staff who work to keep Ithaca College in people’s minds when it comes to philanthropy.

But the staff were pleased to have received such helpful feedback. “Because of the response, given generously by those who participated in the surveys and focus groups,” says Eger, “we have identified key areas we need to improve” (see top of next page, under “What Alumni Told Us”). The offices involved are studying the findings to enhance current programs and services, with the hope of giving alumni compelling reasons to support and stay close to their alma mater.

“In the coming months we’ll be reporting to alumni through ICView and ICView Alumni E-News on the feedback they gave us,” Eger says. “We want to let them know what we’re doing to address their concerns.”

How Alumni Told Us

The College hired consultants from Performance Enhancement Group to conduct e-mail surveys and 500 phone interviews. (33,505 surveys were e-mailed, with a response of 3,106, almost 10 percent). The surveys were conducted in January. In addition, Tom Torello ’87, executive director of marketing communications, conducted focus groups in Los Angeles, Boston, New York, and Ithaca last fall.

The intent was to find out:

  • where Ithaca College currently fits into the lives of its alumni (“Satisfaction”);
  • effective ways to communicate (“Communication”);
  • what works well (and what could be improved) in alumni programming (“Staying Connected”);
  • what motivates alumni to support (or not support) the College (“Financial Support”); and
  • the most meaningful things the College can do for its alumni in the next 5 to 10 years (“Expectations”).

What Alumni Told Us 

The phone surveys and the focus groups yielded mostly similar results. “The feedback from the surveys and the focus groups reinforced each other,” Torello says. One of the most interesting and unexpected findings, Torello notes, is that, contrary to what marketing communications and alumni staff had always presumed, more alumni identify with Ithaca College as a whole than with their individual school or department. Here’s a sketch of the results on the five key issues.

Satisfaction: How satisfied are alumni with their decision to attend IC, and what is their current opinion of the College?

Alumni were overwhelmingly positive in rating their undergraduate experience, faculty, and the city of Ithaca. Many cited the importance in their academic experience of so many hands-on opportunities. All alumni said they had made lifelong friends, which often included faculty. In fact, faculty relationships were an important reason for regularly referring the College to their children, relatives, and children of friends.

Most of the surveyed alumni recognized the positive reputations of the other schools at Ithaca, those they did not attend.

When asked to name the two things most important about being an Ithaca College graduate, the respondents agreed: the high value of their education in preparing them for successful careers and the special bond with fellow alumni.

The consensus about the College today is that it’s moving in the right direction. According to the consultants, the foundation of alumni satisfaction is “remarkably strong.”

Communication: How important is staying informed about happenings at the College?

All respondents said they wanted to be kept updated about what’s going on at IC. Most said they currently receive “just enough information, not too much and not too little,” and expressed a high interest and pride in hearing about other successful alumni.

ICView was consistently named as the primary information source, with “Alumni Notes” named the most favored section, not surprisingly. Respondents reported reading the articles selectively, with special interest on stories related to their majors, and insist they want to continue receiving the paper version.

Respondents appreciated periodic e-mails. More and more alumni are using Facebook. Student Phonathon calls were generally considered “informative.”

But: The alumni website was seen as “confusing,” “outdated,” “not interactive,” and “lean” on job information. Many graduates suggested using the alumni site to create a strong social network using Facebook and other social media.

Taking this critique to heart, Eger and the alumni relations staff plan to increase the IC posts on Facebook. Since alumni are more likely to go to their Facebook accounts before logging into the alumni website, alumni traffic to the College’s Facebook page would increase.

Ithaca College was one of the first colleges in the country to allow alumni to log into their alumni profiles via their Facebook accounts using Facebook Connect. 

The alumni relations staff is also working with the members of the career services office to make job postings available on the alumni website. “We’re totally aware of how important this resource is,” Eger says, “especially in difficult economic times.”

Staying Connected: How important is staying connected to the College?

Some respondents answered that they felt connected because they were aware of events and activities at IC, but few reported being actively linked. Many had been back to campus but said it was difficult to return with any frequency. Most connections were to people: friends, faculty, and coaches. When asked for barriers to participating in social events, recruiting efforts, fundraisers, and other alumni activities, respondents named time constraints, geographical distance, and family and job commitments as the top reasons. Opinions varied on event preferences; however, reunions rated low in appeal and value.

“The feedback on reunions conforms to what we already know,” Eger says. “Attendance over the last 10 to 15 years has been flat. This year, for the first time, we’ve taken a huge step to address this concern by combining Alumni Weekend and Homecoming in a single weekend in October. We want to give alumni a chance to come back to campus when it’s alive and full of opportunities to engage with students, faculty, and staff. Combining two events into one also speaks to the concern over geographical distance.”

Financial Support: How important is alumni financial support?

Most graduates recognized the essential value of alumni giving but saw it as “nice to do” as opposed to “must do.” When asked what circumstances prevented them from giving to IC or giving more than they do, the top three answers were “life,” “the economy,” and “no compelling reason to give.”

Most younger alumni definitely plan to give, but not until they are more financially secure. “I want to give back. Someone helped me when I was there,” said one respondent. For many younger alumni, though, the time for giving lies in the future.

Alumni of all ages find gifts for student-oriented opportunities such as scholarships more compelling than gifts supporting, say, infrastructure. When presented with 10 reasons to make a gift and asked to choose the most important three, respondents picked

         Enhancing educational quality;

         Trusting the gift will be used wisely; and

         Having confidence in the College’s leadership.

(Other choices included company matching funds, the right person asking, estate or tax purposes, and improving the College’s ranking.)

Expectations: What would be the most meaningful thing the College could do for alumni in the next 5 to 10 years?

Graduates overwhelmingly asked for a robust, interactive alumni website that provides opportunities for career support and networking. The consultants’ report cited a usable job-networking resource as a broad, unmet need.

Alumni also identified strengthening local networks for graduates living in IC cluster cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago.

“We’ll be working with regional managers to increase our regional events,” Eger says. “If alumni find it difficult to come to the College, we’ll have to take the College to them.”

That’s the kind of attitude — from Eger and the staff working in various offices to make the alumni experience valuable — that no doubt earned such kudos from survey respondents. But the staff won’t rest on that good feedback. “Over the next months, and into the future,” says Torello, “we’ll be using these valuable responses to engage alumni even more, in the classrooms, on campus, and in their own regions.”

Adds Eger, “We listen, we learn. We love talking to our alumni, and thank everyone for helping us help you.”