orgtheory.net

alumni affairs as institutional stratification

This guest post is by Mikalia Lemonik Arthur, associate professor and chair of sociology at Rhode Island College and a long time friend of the blog. She is an expert in higher education and is the author of Student Activism and Curricular Change in Higher Education.

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My colleague Fran Leazes and I recently released a report “How Higher Education Shapes The Workforce: A Study of Rhode Island College Graduates,” funded by TheCollaborative. Our college—Rhode Island College—is a public comprehensive college at which 85% of students come from within the state, a figure no other college in our state can come close to matching. Our project was spurred by an interest at the state policy level in why graduates of colleges in our state leave Rhode Island. But, we argue, students who were not Rhode Island residents when they began college may not be best understood as “leaving Rhode Island” when they are often really going home.  Thus, tracking our alumni—who really are from Rhode Island—provides a useful window onto both higher education outcomes and workforce development in Rhode Island.

Our project combines data from a number of sources to come to several conclusions about our alumni, including that we actually retain most of them in state. Those who leave often leave in pursuit of graduate degrees. And the majority of our graduates find employment in fields related to their undergraduate major. While the report makes several state-level policy suggestions (invest in public higher education, including expanded graduate degree offerings; better promote the excellent alumni workforce we have available in the state), our research process and findings also highlight the need for comprehensive colleges like ours to invest more substantially in their alumni offices.

Most elite private colleges have robust alumni offices. These offices work hard to maintain alumni connections to the college, largely in order to pursue fundraising opportunities. But elite private colleges know that alumni offices serve other purposes as well. By maintaining excellent databases of their alumni, elite private colleges are easily able to make claims about the percentage of alumni who have earned graduate degrees, the number living in particular geographical areas, and the representation of alumni in key professional fields like medicine or politics. Comprehensive colleges, in contrast, rarely have the resources or staffing in either the alumni office or the institutional research office to gather and maintain such information. Thus, in order to put together our report, we had to employ a team of five undergraduate research assistants, who spent the entire fall semester combing the Internet for biographical data on our sample of alumni.

Of course, it would have made our lives easier if our college already had access to such data. But more importantly, such data would enable our college to tell its story in a more persuasive fashion. Rather than talking about the kinds of outcome measures the performance funding types tend to value (employment and salaries a year after graduation), a robust alumni database would allow us to document the value our college has to our state by highlighting the number of successful professionals, community leaders, volunteers, and others RIC has educated.

Comprehensive colleges are an often-ignored sector of higher education, but we play a vital role in educating the professionals who keep our states moving—the nurses, teachers, social workers, police officers, accountants, small business owners, local politicians, and others. And we are often the most accessible and affordable colleges for working class students who will go on to do great things in our states and beyond. The fact that our alumni affairs offices are under-resourced may not be the type of educational stratification researchers and policymakers pay attention to, but it is a type of educational stratification with consequences for our reputations and our institutions’ funding streams.

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Written by fabiorojas

August 10, 2016 at 1:51 am

13 Responses

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  1. Thanks, Mikaila — that’s really interesting. I hadn’t thought much about the institutional value of alumni offices beyond (direct) fundraising. Idle speculation, though — if the purpose of the data collection is understanding/telling a story about impact, is there an advantage to doing it through alumni offices versus, say, institutional research? Of course, I’m sure schools also want to improve alumni fundraising anyway…

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    epopp

    August 10, 2016 at 10:29 am

  2. Hmmm….I assume IR could do so, but that would require IR to invest in maintaining the database of alumni. If alumni affairs maintains the database they can also use it for fundraising and alumni events and such, and provide IR with access to it as needed, whereas if IR maintained it those other purposes would be less likely to be fulfilled. The broader point, I think, is probably that BOTH offices need to be sufficiently resourced and collaborative in order for this sort of data to be functional.

    Liked by 1 person

    Mikaila

    August 10, 2016 at 3:31 pm

  3. I usually notice that any organization rarely has more than one person from the same University, but then I sense intensely that there is some local culture to which one does or does not belong. So, I conclude that the purveyors of a close-knit local culture are full of bs and that people are highly mobile especially after high school where college, jobs and family formation make people quite mobile.

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    Fred Welfare

    August 10, 2016 at 8:21 pm

  4. Fred: the evidence does not quite support this–it depends on the context. While more research needs to be done in this area, the existing literature suggests that those who leave the state (or perhaps even the local area) to go to college will continue to be extremely mobile in later years, but those who remain close to home for college will have a decreased likelihood of moved for career later on.

    Just to give you an example, let me say a bit about my institution. The State of Rhode Island is only 37 miles wide and 48 miles long. Yet 85.9% of our undergraduate students come from Rhode Island, with an additional 12.7% coming from neighboring MA or CT–meaning less than 2% come from further away. Mobility increases slightly after graduation, but not much: 70% of all known alumni live in Rhode Island and 14% in MA or CT, leaving just over 15% having moved elsewhere–and that includes those who have already retired!

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    Mikaila

    August 10, 2016 at 8:39 pm

  5. Your example makes me wonder if there is an anomaly. 70% of your graduates stay in the state, apparently. I imagine your institution is a state university because of the tuition leap for out-of-staters. If they usually stay in state, then they probably mate within state also? And, even if the divorce rate is unusually low for this group, they find new mates in this small area and again stay in the state! Also, there is the implication that any graduates who went beyond the Bachelor’s or sought another degree, again stayed within state, on average, or 70%. Another implication is that 70% of the relevant job seeking was successful in state. This seems very high, or that the school is quite small. All of these inferences may follow empirically – it just seems unusual, so I wonder why this stickiness occurs especially in the smallest state. Is there some incentive? Is there a particular membership holding so many people in?

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    Fred Welfare

    August 11, 2016 at 2:43 am

  6. There are indeed some unique things about Rhode Island, but the existing literature suggests that such numbers are not unusual. If you look at Page 14 of the full report, you’ll find a paragraph with several citations to relevant literature on this topic.

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    Mikaila

    August 11, 2016 at 2:47 pm

  7. I noticed in Perry’s analysis, states are differentiated as high retainer states or low retainer states. The degree of matrilocal/patrilocal residence as contrasted with neolocal residence (which can of course be in-state) may depend on jobs, or property ownership, or perhaps some other factor which does not seem to be identified. However, in your report, the 70% figure was 70% of those employed, which would be less than 70%, I imagine. The issue is how does the state manage to retain its graduates, if the state has any agency in this matter? I do not think it does unless the licenses (or perhaps property tax/income taxes are low) that accompany college degrees are limited to RI. This would I think tend to hold graduates in state. If there is a unique social solidarity in high retainer states, I wonder what that might be. I would imagine that large states would tend to retain more graduates and smaller states less, but here the instance is that the smallest state retains a rather large number, especially with Boston and NYC in close vicinity. Am I incredulous to press the point?

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    Fred Welfare

    August 11, 2016 at 3:43 pm

  8. I think it could be the start of a really interesting research project! Anecdotally, people in RI are quite hyperlocal in their perspective and perceive even Boston as a great distance away–there may be some cultural attitudes about distance that are relevant to this discussion. The interesting thing in relation to this discussion is that our state policymakers seem to think we do a particularly BAD job of retaining college graduates, which I think you and I would agree does not seem to be the case.

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    Mikaila

    August 11, 2016 at 3:56 pm

  9. I am skeptical of the findings because I perceive immense mobility in the society. However, I realize that property ownership tends to hold people in one place because giving up valued property is a loss and moving to new locations is uncertain. The East Coast is very old property with many people holding onto property for many generations. One huge class distinction is whether parents hold property outright, paying only the property tax, and having inherited it, pass it along to their offspring. It is a significant gift that works as an incentive to get into college, get the degree, get married, etc., in contrast to those many people who inherit nothing and work hard to get into college and graduate only to work off the loan debt and a mortgage!

    I doubt the East Coast, or RI, was hit very hard by the foreclosures in the 2008-2012 Recession.

    The neighborhood I was raised in was a changing neighborhood when I was growing up and is today completely different demographically, but the ideal sense of home remains for some sentimental/nostalgic relatives, but not for me. It is a point of tension. There is no financial incentive to return there. I also notice that some people make a point of controlling as much property as they can by buying and renting out and improving it – flipping here and there and making their own little fiefdom. Talk about the feudal mode of production! I would never have thought of counting up all the properties owned by kin, rented by kin, and then “similar” others! But, property magnates and real estate investors, including banks/bankers, have a big business here and contribute considerable donations to politicians to maintain/change the policies. Perhaps the largest donors of all!!

    Property is one factor and there are others which I wonder about because people move on the basis of their mating and where the jobs are, even if holding property in their “home” state. So, I detect a larger picture.

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    Fred Welfare

    August 11, 2016 at 4:55 pm

  10. Hmm…your perceptions are quite at odd with the realities on the ground over here. We actually were hit extremely hard by the foreclosure crisis (not as badly as Nevada, California, and Florida, but badly none the less), and furthermore few of our students are of the property class you describe. Indeed, it is not unusual for my recent graduates to be saving money to buy houses for their PARENTS. I think I’ll close this discussion by inviting you to come visit Rhode Island sometime–you’ll clearly find it interesting and different from wherever you are used to.

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    Mikaila

    August 11, 2016 at 5:50 pm

  11. I have passed through RI several times in my life while traveling between Boston and NYC. I make a point of getting into the neighborhoods and taking a meal with the locals just to observe. So, I am somewhat disbelieving that the stickiness or retention of the neighborhoods are represented as somewhat high. I have noticed that some neighborhoods are just as middle-to-low income as most other places in America. Why would a college graduate want to return to the same low-income neighborhood that they have aspired to transcend. So, either the aggregated data is awry, or the explanation for why, is not forthcoming. I do not think you have provided even one reason why RI is a high retaining state, if in fact it really is! For example, if areas in RI were hit hard by foreclosures in the recent recession, then what did the people do? Where did they go? How did the foreclosures affect the families of college students, particularly from RIC? I think details like this are important to get a real understanding otherwise the statistics appear abstract and you can take them or leave them – what is the difference?

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    Fred Welfare

    August 12, 2016 at 1:25 am

  12. lol, i’ve eaten a couple of times in RI so i don’t buy your data. nice, dude.

    Liked by 1 person

    anonymous_young_scholar

    August 12, 2016 at 2:17 am

  13. Several times, Ms, and I do not appreciate your arguing from authority. I have asked for some reasons why you think this retainment occurs but you have evaded the query. Thanks anyway.

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    Fred Welfare

    August 12, 2016 at 2:26 am


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