by Emily Streeper, Research Scientist, WGU Labs
When students graduate from college, we hope they will leave not only with a degree, but also with a network of people to help them on their journey. Aside from their academic studies, college is a time for students to build their social networks and develop professional connections to support them as they begin their careers.
Emerging professionals reap tremendous benefits from building a network that includes many people from a variety of backgrounds even if those connections do not involve deep or long-term relationships. These connections, often referred to as secondary or weak ties in sociology literature, are formed by some shared association (e.g., a mutual friend or membership in an organization) but are not necessarily cultivated and tended to on a regular basis. Because these secondary ties often bridge people to opportunities that exist in different networks, research shows that holding many of these ties can improve professional outcomes such as securing a job, earning promotions and salary raises, and improving job satisfaction.123
How can students develop these connections?
Institutions already have an often underutilized but incredibly abundant and ready resource — alumni.
Recently, the WGU Labs team studied the impact of Protopia, an artificial intelligence (AI) tool which builds these connections between students and alumni. We found that with a little support, alumni are ready and willing to connect with students from their alma mater. Using surveys, interviews, and analysis of Protopia usage data, we examined the user experience of students and alumni connecting through Protopia. As part of this research, our team analyzed 1,039 questions submitted to Protopia by students from three large U.S. institutions between 2019 and 2022. Alumni provided over 4,000 responses to these questions, replying to about 87% of student submissions.
Through this study we learned that alumni are an ideal secondary tie for students as they already have some life experience in common: attending the same university or college. More than half of the Protopia users we interviewed indicated they were motivated to use Protopia because they would be connected to alumni who they believed would be more likely to respond to their questions than strangers on platforms such as LinkedIn.
3 Keys to Building Student-Alumni Connections
How can colleges and universities engage this underutilized resource? Our work uncovered three key ways to successfully leverage alumni.
- Make Alumni Engagement Easier
Alumni are eager and ready to help current students, but often they have constraints on the time and energy they can dedicate to connecting. One-on-one mentorship may be too demanding for some. Institutions need to create opportunities for low-demand connections between alumni and students by meeting alumni where they already are — email, text messaging, and social media sites. Universities may even explore ways to integrate connection points into courses, advising, or career services. In doing so, the institutions can help alumni find a way to give back to their alma maters in a manageable and impactful way for both alumni and students.
- Let Technology Help
To many students, the idea of finding alumni who can not only answer their questions but have the time and motivation to do so can be daunting. Technology like Protopia can help institutions provide simple and efficient tools that students can use to easily find and directly contact alumni who want to engage with them. Students who use these tools are filling a gap they see in their institutional resources — 77% of the 246 Protopia users responding to our survey indicated that Protopia provided a valuable resource beyond what was currently available through their institution. Making it simpler for students to contact alumni directly could reduce the barriers students may face when trying to connect with alumni.
- Personalize Career Connections
Career advice and navigating after-graduation life were Protopia users’ main topics of interest. Students seek advice from alumni who are in their careers of interest. Indeed, 85% of survey respondents said having career interests/knowledge in common with the alumni they interacted with was very important to them. Students are looking to maximize their networking efforts by connecting with alumni who can share knowledge and advice relevant to students’ career goals. New technologies give institutions the opportunity to connect students and alumni based on their professional interests and experiences at scale.
Institutions want to provide their students with all the tools and resources they need to succeed. But they are underutilizing a motivated resource: alumni. By investing in student-alumni connections in a strategic way, universities and colleges can give every student the boost they need to make the leap from college to career.
- Bridges, W. P., & Villemez, W. J. (1986). Informal hiring and income in the labor market. American sociological review, 574-582.
- Granovetter, M. (1982). Who gets ahead? The determinants of economic success in America.
- Stephens, G. K. (1994). Crossing internal career boundaries: The state of research on subjective career transitions. Journal of Management, 20(2), 479-501.