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From applicant to alumni: a joined-up approach to social mobility

Chris Birchall considers the role alumni play in inspiring young people and how new partnerships can help make the most of this valuable resource.
This article is more than 5 years old

Chris Birchall works as an Employability Education Projects Officer at the University of Nottingham.

Your current students can act as excellent ambassadors for higher education. However, one thing they cannot do is provide evidence of the impact a degree can have on your future career.

Alumni are one step further in their journey and provide tangible proof of the benefits of a university degree, not only from a career perspective but also on a more personal level. Despite this, programmes enabling potential future applicants to benefit from alumni’s first-hand experience are few and far between.

The significance of role models, and more importantly relevant role models, in social mobility is well-documented in raising children’s aspirations and has formed the basis of many brilliant organisations and initiatives. Engaging with individuals that children actually identify with is a powerful tool when looking to maximise their potential. This is never more the case than when working with those who are underrepresented within higher education and those who might struggle to see the pathway to their desired career.

A recent UUP Foundation sponsored report by the Bridge Group outlined how alumni are a particularly under-used resource in supporting students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. With this in mind, university alumni networks are an influential resource that universities should seek to utilise. The University of Nottingham alone has an alumni network of 270,000 graduates, almost two thirds the population of the city itself, and many of these alumni would be inspirational role models for potential future applicants.

How to make the most of this valuable resource?

Many university initiatives make use their alumni networks to deliver significant financial assistance for students who have received academic offers. For example, the University of Sheffield has 150 alumni fund scholarships open to prospective undergraduate students who will begin their studies in 2018. This financial aid, whilst crucial to many, only allow students to benefit from the economic capital of alumni and not their social capital, the value and importance of which was highlighted again by Paul Clarke in a recent HEPI report. However, the University of Sheffield has started to engage alumni in more active volunteering roles and has therefore has begun to tap into the vast potential of its alumni network whilst still helping its alumni further develop their own skills.

Traditional alumni volunteer opportunities have focused on passing their knowledge to current undergraduate students and opening their eyes to the world outside of higher education. The passion and enthusiasm of alumni, however, could also prove to be life changing for those students who have not yet entered university. By creating structured initiatives involving all three groups (applicants, students and alumni) we can inspire prospective students, whilst still developing the skills of our current students.

Opportunities for alumni to engage with prospective applicants do exist but these are scarce. Events and activities are overwhelmingly directed towards providing current students with guidance and support, while comparatively little is aimed at potential future students. The paucity of these opportunities mean that universities are not truly living up to their civic responsibilities. Universities may often support or encourage their staff to undertake public duties and urge their students to volunteer, but still more can be done. By engaging with alumni to lead and inspire prospective students, we will nurture a culture of civic responsibility before they even step on to campus.

While having prospective applicants directly connected to relevant alumni would certainly be inspiring for those from underrepresented backgrounds, the logistics need to be carefully considered. The majority of alumni move from their host city (or country) upon graduation and so are less likely to attend events at their alma mater. It is therefore important to consider ways to engage with alumni remotely. For example, undergraduate student ambassadors could be offered an alumni mentor or supervisor when signing up to structured outreach initiatives. These alumni mentors could then work with current students on joint social mobility projects, thus providing experience and guidance whilst working towards specific strategic priorities.

The alumni mentors could have direct contact with the undergraduate student either through an online mentoring platform or via direct email. The undergraduate student would then meet the prospective student face-to-face, over the same period. This form of tiered outreach would allow applicants to benefit from the skills and experience of both current and past students. Additional events could then be built into the programme in order to provide structured opportunities for all three to meet. This would give potential applicants the chance to meet with role models at different stages, and better see their own potential journey.

Moving in the right direction

While potential students rarely get to meet university alumni there are many examples of excellent initiatives utilising the social capital of alumni to support already enrolled undergraduate students, for example the Lloyds Scholars scheme. This is a unique social mobility programme which offers a complete package of financial support, paid internships and a business mentor for students from lower income households. The programme plays an invaluable role in supporting the recruitment, retention, and effective progression into graduate employment of students. Many of the students who participate come from WP backgrounds. For example, around 50% of the University of Birmingham’s entrants to the scholars programme come via the Access to Birmingham scheme which aims to raise the aspirations of young people from underrepresented groups.

Around one year after graduating, the starting salary of a Lloyds Scholar is approximately £13,000 higher than the average UK graduate, highlighting the effectiveness of vehicles such as this in driving social mobility. Recent scholar alumni are motivated to play a vital role in the recruitment of new scholars and support them during their time at university. The scholar alumni network is used to assist at assessment centres, appearing in social media profiles and press releases that promote the programme. The network also support current scholars whilst they are preparing for and completing internships, through attending internship preparation sessions and acting as buddy’s for them once they are working in the business. While projects like these do an amazing job of utilising the experiences of past students to help upcoming cohorts, the participating alumni spend little time (if any) with prospective students yet to apply.

Over the next academic year the University of Nottingham will trial a project aimed at doing just that as a joint initiative between the Faculty of Engineering, Careers and Employability Service and the Campaign & Alumni Relations Office. Our “Women in Engineering Outreach Programme” will involve joint teams of year 10-12 female students, current female engineering students, and female engineering alumni – working together on a joint project over a period of five weeks in the spring term.

At the end of these five weeks the work of these groups will be displayed in the Engineering Faculty and all the participants (pupils, students, and alumni) will attend a closing event celebrating their achievements. The closing event will be open to a wide range of attendees from across the faculty and will raise awareness of the programme, highlighting the work which the groups have carried out. Our hope is that by taking a tiered approach and providing role models at different stages of a student’s journey, it will capture the imagination of children who might otherwise not see a university degree, and in this case an engineering degree particularly, as an achievable goal.

My hope is that the “whole institution” approach to widening participation can be more widely redefined to include those who have passed though the institution and have benefited in the past. The ideas outlined here are far from the only routes to engage alumni in social mobility projects, this project shows one way alumni and current students can be inspiring role models for future students. The role alumni can play in this area should be further explored but I am certain it will result in novel and exciting new partnerships in the future.

One response to “From applicant to alumni: a joined-up approach to social mobility

  1. Schemes like the Lloyds Scholarships, where the alumni are drawn from similar backgrounds as the target student groups, illustrate how this type of intervention could have an impact. There is evidence that students learn effectively from direct observation and interaction with role models who are able to relate to the circumstances of prospective applicants. On a more general level, alumni involvement in student recruitment is far more problematic. In the USA, it is generally regarded as an alumni relations exercise with little effective impact on admissions decisions.

    It is not at all certain, therefore, that this area will result in a significant number of novel and exciting new partnerships. It could simply function as a fundraising vehicle as an offshoot of alumni relations. It could also be a very resource-intensive exercise generating outcomes worse than those achievable by qualified and competent professional outreach workers. As the author postulates in the opening of this post: truly effective programmes enabling potential future applicants to benefit from alumni’s first-hand experience may continue to be few and far between.

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