Looking to Make Connections, Alumni Offices Log On to LinkedIn

Keri Rasmussen for The Chronicle

Michael Steelman, director of alumni career services at George Washington U., says graduates appreciate LinkedIn's professional feel.
October 28, 2013

For Michael Steelman, George Washington University's director of alumni career services, consulting with alumni these days sometimes means chatting with them on LinkedIn instead of talking with them across the table.

While other social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are also used in alumni programs, Mr. Steelman says LinkedIn offers a level of professionalism that appeals to many graduates and current students. Alumni looking to network "don't necessarily want to see photos of where someone went on vacation this year," he says, but they do want to see where other graduates have worked and if they're located nearby.

As social-media sites continue to expand, evolve, and change the ways people communicate with one another, college and university alumni offices have learned to adapt—some more willingly than others.

For instance, many colleges see LinkedIn as a complement to networking and an easy way to get current job titles and accurate contact information from graduates who might be slow to report changes through traditional channels­. But other institutions and stand-alone alumni organizations view Linked­In warily, seeing it as potentially competing with membership programs carefully constructed over the years to offer alumni connections and related benefits.

Since August, LinkedIn has added more than 1,000 "University Pages," public pages that show up as links in the profiles of LinkedIn members who list the institutions as their alma maters. In addition to displaying whatever news an institution posts, the pages gather public information from individual profiles and display statistics such as where an institution's alumni are and what sectors they work in.

Omar Garriott, a senior marketing manager for LinkedIn's higher-education programs, says the university pages are a good source of information about an institution's outcomes. "A lot of schools have difficulty getting their own data on alumni," he says.

The pages also display private LinkedIn alumni groups for the individual universities; Linked­In members must request to join those groups. At some institutions, the groups are run by alumni or careers offices, while at others they are overseen by alumni associations or even individual alumni who created groups before their colleges did.

According to Crystal Braswell, manager of corporate communications at LinkedIn, the company adds about 200 new university pages a week. Colleges and universities pay nothing for the service, Ms. Braswell says. LinkedIn makes its money selling ads on the site.

Not all alumni are LinkedIn fans, however. When Syracuse University started encouraging alumni to connect on LinkedIn, a few e-mailed to ask why the university was making the push, says Kim Brown, the university's assistant director of alumni programs in career services. She says a few alumni were angry and said they felt left out because they didn't have LinkedIn profiles. Ms. Brown says that she had expected some backlash, and that no one was left behind; the alumni-relations office didn't abandon older communication methods, like e-mail.

Ms. Brown says Syracuse is active on LinkedIn and other digital platforms because the alumni office needs to stay current, and the social networks can make networking easier.

Previously, she says, if a student wanted to connect with a mentor or a graduate, the student had to e-mail someone in the alumni office. A staff member would contact alumni and then would eventually e-mail the student back to set up a meeting.

Now a LinkedIn group called 'CuseConnect allows alumni and students to get in touch for advice, mentorship, or anything else, Ms. Brown says. 'CuseConnect has more than 8,500 members, while the official LinkedIn alumni group, the Syracuse University Alumni Network, has more than 31,000 members. Ms. Brown helps run both.

While she finds that the statistics LinkedIn provides on students and alumni are helpful, Ms. Brown says, she thinks too many universities and alumni associations are "caught up in the analytics" rather than focusing on actual connections.

'Game Changers'

Tim Taliaferro, vice president of communications and digital strategy for the Texas Exes, the independent alumni association at the University of Texas at Austin, says the group wants to preserve the value of being a member, which costs $60 a year or $1,000 for a lifetime. So free connection sites like LinkedIn could become a challenge.

But members continue to value the association, he says. "The size and breadth are the attraction" for graduates who consider joining.

Mr. Taliaferro says one reason he isn't worried about losing dues-paying members to LinkedIn is that Texas Exes has its own employment network, Hire 'Em Horns. (The name is a play on the university's slogan, "Hook 'em horns.") Employers pay a one-time $135 fee to join, and job seekers can see the site only if they are members.

Mary Cunningham, executive director of prospect and campaign management for Villanova University, says Villanova's goal is to help alumni feel as connected as they were while they were students—and for that, LinkedIn, Facebook, and other social-media sites have been game changers. While alumni associations do place a certain amount of emphasis on fund raising, she says, that isn't the main driver for Villanova's alumni relations. "Connecting doesn't always translate into money, but that's OK," she says.

Amy Layman, the university's executive director of alumni relations, says Villanova is putting more effort into LinkedIn lately. For instance, the university offers students Webinars that discuss how to maintain contact and be successful on the professional network.

LinkedIn "provides another avenue" for networking and connections, Ms. Layman says, although she stresses that it is far from the university's only means of outreach. Villanova has 39 regional alumni chapters across the nation, and those are still the main hubs for staying in touch with graduates.

Pennsylvania State University's alumni association, with 172,000 members, says it's the largest dues-paying alumni group in the world. Officials there see both sides of the traditional-versus-digital debate.

Amy F. Caputo, director of strategic communications for the Penn State Alumni Association, says Penn State has sent out the "Football Letter," a weekly newsletter during football season, for more than 75 years. She says it isn't being replaced by LinkedIn or any other social-media offering, but it has made the transition from paper to e-mail over the years.

But the data available from some online connection options is appealing. "You don't know who's picking up the newsletter, the newspaper, or magazine," she says. Online, though, alumni administrators can track data and see who is opening messages or going to the Web site for information.

"We're not in it as fast as we'd like to be," she says of using technology to keep the Penn State community connected. "But I'm not sure anyone can keep up these days."