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Forgotten alumni: online learners as donors.


The article encourages university development officials and leaders in the field of distance education to actively view online learners as future members of the alumni community. This paper synthesizes literature related to alumni giving, highlights the dearth of attention given to distance education alumni and provides suggestions for encouraging philanthropy among such alumni. Suggestions include modeling solicitation processes after historically Black Colleges and Universities, ensuring student satisfaction, promoting a familial concept within programs, and reexamining the roles currently assigned to students by development offices.

"It is important that universities look at distance education and giving, or 30 years down the road they are going to get caught." (Schejbal & Lescht, 2002, p. 8)


Active alumni fulfill an important role to their alma mater, acting as evangelists for prospective students, community liaisons for existing students and as critical sources of income. Both college and university administrators and their development officers readily acknowledge the importance of alumni as the financial backbone of educational institutions (Mael & Ashforth, 1992). According to Dennis (2003) federal and state funding for higher education is likely to decrease in the future, leaving colleges and universities with little choice but to rely on other forms of revenue, including alumni donation. Alumni donations have also become more scrutinized in recent years because alumni participation rates are increasingly viewed as a measure of alumni satisfaction with an institution (Porter, 2000).

As distance education becomes more prevalent, so does the need to examine whether alumni graduating from online programs will affiliate themselves with their alma maters and become active members of an alumni community. Unfortunately, according to Schejbal and Lescht, in 2002 no development offices in the US were addressing the distance education alumni audience. Yet, approximately 72 percent of colleges and universities offer distance education courses (Morrison, 2003) and 53.6% of schools participating in the Sloan Consortium's 2004 survey agree that online education is critical to their long-term strategy. The growth of online education only points upward as approximately 2.6 million students were expected to study online in 2004 (Allen & Seaman, 2004). This paper synthesizes literature related to alumni giving, highlights the dearth of attention given to distance education alumni and provides suggestions for encouraging philanthropy among such alumni.

Ignoring an emerging student population

The majority of research within the field of alumni development focuses on traditional undergraduate student populations at private and public universities (Pumerantz, 2005; Okunde and Berl, 1997; Okunde, 1996; Clotfelter, 2001; Mosser, 1993; Monks, 2003) ignoring the growing body of non-traditional students who are increasingly filling classroom rosters. Nontraditional students are defined as those of multi-ethnic backgrounds, first-generation college students and those from a low-economic background. These students may attend college on a part-time basis and are typically over the age of 22. In defense of the existing research, nontraditional students have historically been associated with lower income and levels of giving (Okunde and Berl, 1997) as compared to conventional students, thus making them a less desirable demographic. In 2004, it was expected that more than 100 million students would be classified as adult learners or non-traditional students (Compton & Schock, 2000). Distance education students fall within the definition of non-traditional students; in 2000, Educational Statistics Quarterly reported a clear pattern emerging for both undergraduates and graduate/first-professional distance education students. Students who reported participating in distance education programs tended to be those with family responsibilities and limited time. They were more likely to be enrolled in school part time and to be working full time while enrolled. Additionally, characteristics associated with family and work responsibilities (such as being independent, older, married, or having dependents) were associated with higher rates of participation in distance education. According to Dennis (2003) the college student of the future will not look like a college student of today, the proportion of enrollments made up of the stereotypical white, 18-22 year-old college students will decrease in the next decade. An increasing number of non-traditional students look at the college degree as a workplace credential (Miller and Lu, 2003).

The non-traditional student population is thus fast becoming the norm at some colleges and universities nationwide. These students increasingly embrace the flexibility that online coursework can offer to their hectic schedules. Unfortunately, a limited amount of research has been completed in this area. Indirectly, current research supports the argument that it is less common for non-traditional students to become active, donating alumni (Okunde and Berl, 1997). Harrison, Mitchell and Peterson (1995) determined that schools with larger part-time student populations have lower levels of donation. More specifically related to online alumni, Schejbal and Lescht (2002) conducted a pilot study comparing online graduate student giving with face-to-face graduate students; the data was sorted by degree, gender, ethnicity, residency, and number of hours earned on and off campus. The results indicate that 88 percent do not contribute at all. Alumni who completed coursework on-campus gave more money to the institution than their off-campus counterparts or those who completed coursework both on and off campus. (Schejbal & Lescht, 2001) Alumni development offices have failed to encourage the participation of nontraditional students in development campaigns; or perhaps they have designed alumni programming that does not appeal to this unique and diverse demographic. Regardless of the specific reason, this is a population that has been ignored, a problem that needs to be corrected for the future well-being of colleges and universities.

Suggestions and recommendations

In the absence of numerous, large-scale studies specifically on distance education students, it is still possible to give several suggestions that can be applied to distance education alumni based on study of related research (Monks, 2003; Okunde & Berl, 1997; Okunde, 1996).

1. Distance education programs should utilize principles used by historically Black Colleges and Universities to guide their solicitation process. The prospect for long-term growth of endowment gifts among traditionally Black college alumni merit a more generous budget to develop sustained and sophisticated approaches to cultivating individual gifts (Drewery & Doerman, 200t). Many demographic concerns regarding Black alumni are also associated with distance education populations, including lack of accumulated alumni wealth and lack of institutional budget dedicated to serving the group (Drewery & Doerman, 2001). Most interestingly, traditionally Black colleges and universities that engaged in strategic capital campaigns targeting individual alumni in the 1970s are generally considered the most academically competitive institutions today (Drewery & Doerman, 2001). For example, Spelman College's successful capital campaign was launched with limited development staff, no annual giving program, no ongoing stewardship program, and no planned giving or major gifts program. (Winbush, 1996) Despite these difficulties, Spelman's capital campaign in the late 1990s resulted in over $113 million in donations.

Black college giving rates typically fall below 10%, (Holloman, Gasman, & Anderson-Thompkins, 2003). In order to promote greater alumni participation, traditionally Black colleges and universities take specific steps to reach out to their alumni community and personalize the giving process. Successful students and alumni are showcased as examples of the power of their degree programs. In addition, Black colleges and universities act as a support system for their alumni, providing a network of services such as career development, library access, and regional programming for alumni. These services create an active bond that allows the alumni to recognize continuing benefit from their alma mater. Many distance education students are unaware of the services that are available to them as alumni of a college or university. Educating alumni about these services would provide evidence of a tangible benefit gained from association with the alma mater. Showcasing past alumni and personalizing the giving process would also potentially increase giving from online students.

2. Distance education leaders should work to ensure student satisfaction within online programs. The most significant individual factor associated with alumni giving is satisfaction with one's educational experience (Monks, 2001). Pumerantz (2005) asserts that the experience that students have is critical to future alumni donations. It seems clear that distance education students are more satisfied with programs that encourage interaction, promote community and work to create an affinity relationship between the student and the university. These same ideals encourage traditional students to become donors to their alma mater. Providing dedicated contacts to assist online students with frequent concerns including technological issues, financial aid assistance, and registration would be an appropriate start for the creation of an inclusive student experience. Navigating the campus administrative bureaucracy can be a daunting task for face-to-face students. When trying to seek assistance via the phone and email it become an exercise in frustration and futility. Many large colleges and universities offer international students dedicated assistance to help them integrate within the campus environment; distance education students should receive the same benefit. Research shows that with dedicated hands-on assistance students stay the course and complete their online programs at a much higher rate than the norm (Dahl, 2004).

For example, Kansas State University's online master of agribusiness program enrolled 83 students in 2002 from eight countries and 30 states and boasts a retention rate of 95 percent. Everything, from admission to tuition, is handled through the department which "streamline[s] services for the students (Jorgenson, 2002, p. 5) Student retention levels in the "Online Technology in Education" master's degree program at Lesley University, Cambridge, Mass., consistently reach nearly 100 percent. Students continually cite three factors that lead them to stay in the program: (I) Timely, interesting, relevant course content; (2) Timely feedback from and frequent interaction with instructors; (3) An interactive online learning community of students According to Dr. Maureen Brown Yoder, Leslie's Director of Online Learning, "We also pay a lot of attention to them, such as contacting them if we haven't heard from them for a while. I've had graduates say they almost quit a course, but that this friendly interest made the difference." (Dahl, 2004, p. 6)

3. Distance education leaders and development officers should work to promote a familial concept throughout the educational experience. According to Zieger and Pulichino (2004) a face-to-face component in a distance learning program is vital to establish, maintain, and evolve a virtual learning community of practice capable of transcending the limits of time and space through technology. Pepperdine University utilizes a 'Tech Camp' to orient its new educational technology doctoral students. Data reveals that Tech Camp's week long program is successful in fostering an initial community of learners. (Zieger & Pulichino, 2004) Tarlton State University has designed an orientation program to help students understand the online learning environment and appropriately manage expectations. According to Gaide (2004) student feedback at Tarleton State has shown that the orientation program had reduced student threat level and increased comfort with both the educational program and institution. Campus visitation may increase the distance education student's sense of inclusion into the university community at large. In the same line of thought, Workman and Stenard (Rovai, 1996) suggested that a simple but effective way of establishing identification with the school is to issue identification cards. Identification cards represent a tangible link to the university and also offer a level of utility as many businesses offer student discounts. If a simple identification card can create a sense of association, imagine if an online program sent university apparel to each participating student? According to Pumerantz (2005) top fundraising institutions successfully integrate the philosophy of "family' at the institution. Welcoming distance education students into the university family at the beginning of their educational experience and continuing to encourage the promotion of the familial concept throughout the educational experience will result in higher levels of giving as alumni.

4. A new line of research should examine innovative ways to promote philanthropy among distance education alumni. Current research defines several factors behind the psychology of giving. Those factors include: socio-economic, geo-demographic, and psychographic factors (Okunde, 1996); an individual's satisfaction with his or her undergraduate experience (Pummerantz, 2005; Monks, 2002); active participation in student government, intercollegiate athletics, performing arts/music, fraternities or sororities, religious groups, or resident hall life (Monks, 2002); a high level of involvement in an internship, contact with faculty outside of class, contact with their major advisor, or contact with campus staff (Monks, 2002); and organizational antecedent factors (organizational prestige), personal antecedent variables (sentimentality) and organizational outcome variables (Mael and Ashforth, 1992). Some of these factors can be addressed by developing an excellent online program, as suggested earlier. However, the new medium for instructional delivery immediately eliminates factors such as athletics, fraternities and sororities, and face-to-face contact with university and college faculty staff. New research needs to examine innovative ways to get students involved from afar; studies need to examine how to help students feel part of a community, both for educational and donation reasons. Unfortunately, with the exception of Schejbal and Lecht's 2002 pilot study, there has been no research concerned with distance education alumni's abilities and propensities to give.

5. There is a need to re-examine the roles currently assigned to students by development offices. Students are normally categorized as traditional or non-traditional, as highlighted in this article. Although the online student seemingly fits into the non-traditional track, alumni offices need to understand and appreciate that online students can be considered alumni even if they do not complete an entire program online. The University of Florida online program (Ferdig & Dawson, under review), for instance, offers graduate courses to teachers who need professional development classes but already have a graduate degree. Single classes or even certificates (a small collection of courses) can be taken by students who do not need a degree but may have always longed to attend--and belong to---a prestigious institution. In addition, students are now beginning to take online classes because of the flexibility and pedagogic strength of the new medium; these new students may not fall into the non-traditional demographics of socioeconomic status or willingness to give. Considering these students as potential alumni donors opens up a new audience for development offices.


By ignoring the distance education student and alumnus, an ever expanding segment of the higher educational system, we are alienating those that have the knowledge and ability to contribute and promote distance education throughout the country. As Schejbal and Lecht (2002, p. 8) state: "It is important that universities look at distance education and giving, or 30 years down the road they are going to get caught." Students have embraced distance learning and determined that it is a viable and popular medium by which knowledge can be acquired. The sooner alumni development offices come to the realization that distance education students are here for the long term, the better their chances of building inroads into this community for the long term.


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Zieger, L., & Pulichino, J. (2004). Establish a Community of Learners: A Case Study of a University Graduate Orientation Program for Online Learners. The Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 2(4), published online at

Erik W. Black, University of Florida

Kara Dawson, University of Florida

Richard E. Ferdig, University of Florida

Erik Black is a doctoral student in the University of Florida "s School of Teaching & Learning. Kara Dawson is an Associate Professor and Richard Ferdig is an Assistant Professor; both are in the University of Florida College of Education.
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Author:Ferdig, Richard E.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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