By John L. Gann, Jr.
The economies of college towns will be increasingly challenged in future years. The growth of distance learning, the cost of college tuition, a shortfall in jobs requiring a degree, and the widespread media coverage of all these developments are already starting to have an effect.
Both colleges and college towns will accordingly do well to look to additional sources of jobs and income. One possibility has been extensively used by colleges — though arguably far below its potential. And it has been tapped hardly at all by the businesses and institutions of most college towns. It’s the alumni.
Why should that be? In a number of ways, alumni are a much better market for colleges and college towns than the current students they focus on.
The advantage of students as a market, of course, is that they’re in town nine months out of the year for four or more years. That’s a lot of pizza sales. But high college costs and online learning are likely to reduce the number of students or the time they spend on campus, especially at the less prestigious schools.
And compared with alumni, students have less money and are accumulating more debt each year they are in school. Their ability to buy or donate will be constrained for years or even decades by student loan repayments. Alums had smaller loans, if any at all, and often have already paid them off.
Many students will drop out or transfer to another school before graduating. That can mean poorer prospects for financial success or at least less loyalty to the school that did not validate them with a degree. Alumni saw the commitment to the school through to the end.
In other ways, alums are also better prospective customers. The college years are often a trying and intense reality that contrasts with the sentimental and idealized memories of the same period in the minds of aging alums. And the marketing appeal of anything associated with one’s lost youth should never be underestimated.
Students’ lifestyles are less settled, their career preferences not yet fully decided. They’re more fickle. Alums are stable and established in their careers with many at their peak earning years.
And, of course, students’ numbers are dwarfed by the numbers of alumni. And every marketer covets college graduates.
Selling to scattered alums
Reaching this market is not hard. Colleges and alumni associations have records of former students that often include current contact information as well as subject matter interests. That’s a valuable database.
But how can college towns as distinct from the colleges themselves sell to alumni? The schools do a good job bringing them back for on-campus football weekends, homecomings and reunions. College town businesses, of course, benefit whenever alums are back in town. But what about the other times, which are, after all, most of the year?
Ways of appealing to scattered alumni that can benefit the college, the local business community and the local government may be limited only by our imagination.
* Civic projects sometimes offer people their names or company names on a paving stone or bench in exchange for a modest donation. How many alums wouldn’t mind being in a small way part of their old campus or college town business district in perpetuity?
* Buffalo, N.Y.; Franklin County, Iowa; and the entire states of Nebraska and South Dakota have marketed themselves to bring back former residents to live. They have astutely concluded that those who already know the place from having lived there are their best prospects. People who spent years in a college town could similarly be a good market for other things associated with the place.
* In what I described in another article as Class Acts, alums lacking the resources to endow a wing, a collection, or a chair on campus could endow a single course.
* Alumni magazines are typically the main way colleges keep in touch with their graduates. For marketing purposes, they are often underutilized.
Psych 101 taught us that we are always more interested in ourselves and our peers than in others. So why don’t schools’ alumni magazines talk more about the accomplishments of the alumni they’re presumably published for? Might not such stories bind graduates more closely to the college and the college town?
Alumni successes, after all, inferentially evidence the value of the education provided, so such accounts could also help sell the school to others. Today prospective students are likely to be more interested in how graduates of a university have made what they learned pay off than in new campus buildings or academic research honors awarded to faculty.
* Memories sell. Why not offer branded memorabilia — coffee or beer mugs, T-shirts, or distinctive mailable menu items — from a favorite student restaurant, hang-out or watering hole? Ditto for a charming used bookstore, co-op or farmers market selling things the campus commissary did not.
* More college towns could do well by selling themselves as special places that are more than just the environs of a campus. Ithaca, N.Y., and Madison, Wis., have done that more than most college towns.
* Banks offer alums credit cards with university branding with some of the proceeds going back to the school. Why couldn’t local businesses that can sell to out-of-towners do the same? Amazon and other Internet sellers have proved you can sell to people no matter where they are.
Having been secure economically for so many years, colleges and the college towns they largely influence are not always entrepreneurial or as strong on commerce as other places. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is often the implicit economic paradigm. With looming changes in higher education prompted by economics and technology, that may not be the best guidance for the future.
— John L. Gann Jr., consults, trains and writes on marketing places for economic growth. He is the author of “The Third Lifetime Place: A New Economic Opportunity for College Towns.” Reach him at [email protected]