A hypothetical question – what would your school do if it had a really famous notable alumni like President Obama?
According to Wikipedia, no less than eight education institutions claim President Obama as their alum (St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School, Besuki School, Calvert School, Punahou School, Occidental College, Columbia College, Harvard Law School and he also taught at the University of Chicago Law School).
It is great that each of these institutions is proud to name President Obama as their alum, but beyond bragging rights, does this have any other significance?
In fact, go to virtually any alumni website of any school and they all have a page listing their most famous and notable alumni.
The real question is so what?
Does anyone really care that a school has a famous alum unless it can show a direct and significant causal relationship between the school and the career outcome of that alum?
In the case of President Obama, many are quick to quote Colombia and Harvard Law School when attributing his academic background to particular institutions, but were they his biggest influences? After all it was actually at Occidental College in February 1981, where President Obama made his first public speech. He called for Occidental to participate in the disinvestment from South Africa in response to that nation’s policy of apartheid. As such, one could make an argument that Occidental had the biggest impact on his eventual career outcome!
To demonstrate my point further, Harvard claims no less than seven US Presidents as alumni (John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, George W. Bush and Barack Obama). Is there something special about the Harvard experience that produces American presidents or is it simply people with the potential to be president happen to go to Harvard?
The cause and effect of the career outcome of the alum is the critical ingredient and is often the one neglected by schools.
So what do schools need to do to leverage their alumni beyond bragging rights?
Firstly, with famous alumni, Alumni Relations and Alumni Career Services departments need to highlight not just their fame but their direct involvement in their career outcome. This can be as simple as interviewing famous alumni and getting them to explain the impact of their time at your institution in achieving their career goals.
Secondly, schools in general need to deprioritize their famous alumni. Famous alumni will always represent a tiny proportion of the student body.
What is more relevant is to focus on the successful career outcomes of ‘regular alumni’.
This is not hard to do. LinkedIn is a fabulous tool in providing data for every school on the career outcomes not just of famous alumni, but more importantly of regular alumni.
It is right that schools want to showcase their alumni. However the success stories that will attract future students are not about how many Presidents you have ‘created’, but how many relevant regular professionals you have produced. Moreover it will critically be about getting those regular alumni to provide testimonials as to the cause and effect of attending your institution on their career outcome.
So let’s imagine not that President Obama was your alum. But rather let’s imagine what you could do with an army of success stories from regular alumni providing inspiration to prospective students and mentoring your graduating students.
This seems to me to be way more powerful than a celebrity alumni headline.
Do you agree that schools fail to adequately explain the cause and effect of the career outcomes of their alumni?
How has your school demonstrated success stories of regular alumni to prospective students? This should be part of your alumni career services offering.
Which would you rather have, a few famous and notable alumni or a mass of success stories from regular alumni?
I would welcome your thoughts.