Forgetting alumni harms Columbia

By Editorial Board

With yet another decline in enrollment, a history of weak fundraising and a likely tuition increase looming next year, the need for communication between Columbia and its alumni is more important than ever.

Alumni are one of a college’s most valuable resources, second only to its current students. Connections with alumni cultivate relationships with students that provide internship and job opportunities. A strong relationship with alumni can also result in donations to the college.

While most colleges have large alumni relations departments that can secure donors, Columbia’s alumni division has experienced changes that have made it harder to adequately fulfill its mission.

On Jan. 27, Patrick Sheahan resigned as vice president of Institutional Advancement, to be followed shortly by the Feb. 28 termination of more than half of the employees in the Office of Institutional Advancement and the creation of a new Department of Development to replace it. The college finally hired a vice president of Development in July, appointing Jon Stern, former Dean of Advancement and Associate Dean of Campaign and Strategic Initiative at Wabash College.

Amidst all of the administrative changes, Columbia struggles to connect with alumni. This issue was most recently observed when Stern postponed Alumni Weekend, which was supposed to take place in late September but was pushed to Spring 2015.

As Columbia focuses on being more selective when recruiting incoming freshmen, graduates are clearly being forgotten. Neglecting alumni is detrimental to the college as it tries to increase fundraising, especially because alumni are often major contributors.

Success stories from the college’s alumni can not only draw in students but can also maintain interest from current students, improving enrollment and retention. According to a 2013 “The American Freshman” report by the University of California, Los Angeles, 53 percent of college–bound high school seniors said the ability of a college’s graduates to get good jobs plays a role in their decision to attend. As part of Columbia’s plan to rebrand itself, it featured 11 faculty members as part of its citywide advertising campaign in early August. Although the college has inspiring faculty, it would have been much more inspiring to see faces of successful alumni.

This is not to say that the college does not try to reach out to alumni. DEMO Magazine is a publication specifically pegged to alumni, featuring graduate and current students. However, it is not properly advertised to students. The publication also only publishes twice a year. The achievements of the students and graduates are not being actively communicated, which impedes donations. Alumni are more likely to donate to their alma mater if their accomplishments receive recognition from the institution.

If Columbia can attract more alumni donations, it could help the college’s fragile financial status. During the 2011–2012 academic year, Columbia generated approximately $8 million in net fundraising, as reported May 5 by The Chronicle. Upon taking office in 2012, Kim said he plans to focus more on raising money and acknowledged that in the past the college has put too much effort into hosting events rather then on fundraising strategies.

The importance for colleges to generate adequate funding has been stressed in light of the economic downturn and rising costs of higher education. Columbia’s endowment seems miniscule compared to other private universities. Northwestern University is a fundraising powerhouse, generating about $7 for every $1 spent and receives billions of dollars in fundraising.

If Columbia works toward a better relationship with its alumni, many of the college’s problems could be solved. Alumni are a valuable financial asset to a college, and Columbia should realize this and focus as much on its graduates as incoming freshmen.