THE BLOG

What You Get for Your College Degree: The Value of Being an Alumnus

Apr 11, 2013 | Updated Jun 11, 2013

The current hot button article is about finding your spouse while you are in college. Frankly I am not a fan, believing that there are issues of maturity that need to be in place before closing in on the spouse. However, there is something in the basic premise that does hold water. Your college classmates are the people who have come to know you over a significant period of time, in good times and bad, and represent a comfort level of shared experience at least while in college. They are also aware of your talents and interests, goals and aspirations, skills (and your weaknesses or issues). They may share similar interests and dreams. You like each other.

It is no accident that in firms there are often clusters of employees from the same schools. That comfort level, and to some extent trust in the quality of the education received (or at least familiarity with it), helps build the brand reputation. It becomes, to some extent, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Following World War II, you often found similar clusters of men who had served together working in the same firms. The same principle applied. They had been in the foxholes together and trusted each other.

It is now a truism validated by the success of social media and, in particular, LinkedIn that professional success depends on who you know. I have heard it said that those with the greatest net worth have the greatest networks. What better place to start than with your college classmates?

Often students upon graduation, fatigued by the whole experience, walk away vowing to never connect with the campus again. Or their lives get busy with the quest for work or doing the work or finding the spouse or marrying the person met in school and then having the family. And frankly, colleges may not always set themselves up for great alumni relations if the first message to graduates is a request for funds.

But one of the best things to come from your college experience, in addition to learning to think, will be the people you have met along the way. Some will actually be faculty and even administrators. As a former dean and professor, I have dinner periodically with various of the students I have come to know over the years. I am a part of their lives and their professional networks. I am still often a reference. A few of my students working at the White House invited me to lunch there so I got to benefit from their success.

Then there are the classmates. They may indeed become spouses or introduce you to a potential mate. They may become the godparents. I have had classmates edit my writings and have edited theirs. I have seen clusters of alumni form organizations for causes they believed in or just support each other's causes. As an alumnus you may also be able to use campus resources like libraries, attend lectures, audit classes or travel with classmates. These all become more chances to expand your networks from the college and the return on your investment.

More importantly, alumni -- whether in your class or not -- can be your best resource for job leads. Hence the value of college networking events. As an alumnus, your college may allow you to continue to tap resources for lifelong career support. My own alma mater Bryn Mawr College has a rigorous support program for alumni career needs. It is to the interest of the college that you be both happy and gainfully employed (think fundraising...) It is no accident that NYU has both a powerhouse fundraising capacity and robust resources for alumni career support.

Similarly, you become an asset to those who follow. You may be asked to mentor undergraduates and share your experience with them. You may be able to offer internships just as you were able to take advantage of those made available to you by alumni. A networking event for undergraduates to meet alumni is just as valuable for the alumni to meet each other and share business cards.

Engagement on boards and committees whether the Board of Trustees or the reunion planning committee gives you more exposure and adds to your professional profile. You have a chance to develop or just use your leadership skills and give back in non-monetary ways. There is a gratification that is life enriching.

Students seeking the right college need to understand that it is the entire experience that they are taking on--not just classes and not just a major that will purportedly get them the most lucrative job. That conception of the value of college misses the point: It is the entire enterprise that makes one more valuable in the workplace in the short and long term. Therefore it is important in assessing a college to talk to the alumni. What are they doing now? Were they helped by their college experience? Were, and are, college resources, professors and administrators useful. What courses would they recommend? How close do they remain to their classmates and how likely are they to support new graduates?

Schools that are noted for being "elite" often -- usually -- have dedicated alumni and that is a big part of what is being paid for. That is the value of the brand.

We think about the value of going to college but the actual value is in being a graduate from college -- being an alumnus.

Visit www.collegecountdown.com to learn more about Marcia Cantarella and her new book I Can Finish College.