Universities desire to keep alumni close by. Graduates are a testimony to an institution’s progress and effectiveness—or not. More Harvard graduates live in Boston than any other place in the world. Cambridge can’t hold them all. If an institution is doing a good job in educating people that help improve a community, it stands to reason it would like those graduates to stay close to home and contribute to the economy.
Traditional professional skills in engineering, business, nursing, education and other disciplines lead to pronounced economic development. However, the critical thinking skills and cultural contributions graduates make in a free society also have lasting value and create economic sustenance. Boundaries around positive economic disciplines and those that appear to have little utility send leaders on fool’s errands. Well-educated people in every discipline cause economies to thrive or, if absent, starve.
Various stimuli lead graduates to stay close and create economic power. Things that encourage graduates to become neighbors of their institution and often their home towns also contribute to the alumni support base. This leads to increased philanthropy; the conditions are mutually supportive. Consider these five observations.
One: Treat students and graduates with dignity and respect through frequent, effective and honest communication. If leadership believes graduates are “meat on the hoof” for alumni support, or calculated as increased enrollments for state subsidy only, graduates will smell a rat and walk the opposite way for jobs and community engagement. They leave.
Two: Business, industry, commerce, educational institutions, hospitals and other enterprises that support a university and its students should be treated as if their interest and needs matter—because they do. A university should respond to local needs first. Business and commerce want the same things that universities want: Students who can think, like to be challenged, work hard and own a commitment to the region that is frequently close to their places of birth. When universities attend to the needs of commerce and industry, while simultaneously attending to the needs of the students, everyone wins. Industries support students, industries support the institution and the institution supports and responds to both. Industry and students alike want an educational institution that values the greater good of the student and the region with its collective enterprises.
Three: Local and state government contribute to the equation. The state supports universities in their effort to create an educated citizenry believing such citizenry generates a more effective state. When involved in a functioning partnership, private enterprise, the state and the university serve students well and, in turn, encourage students to enter the local workforce. The state’s role culminates in appointing effective university leadership; however, it must be a two-way street. The institution’s role is to make sure that graduates are well prepared and have been given effective educational opportunities. When that is the case, graduates, local enterprise, state government and the university form an effective partnership. In addition, local governments play a thoughtful and productive role. Effective governments support all members of the local educational and economic ecosystem.
Four: Families play a role in helping keep the economic development investment, i.e., the graduate, close. If families are supportive of the institution and the various members of the extended community, the likelihood of graduates remaining close to home increases. When that happens, two powerful results are realized. Economic impact creates local benefit. Secondly, productive family relationships are strengthened. There are many forces at work that impact the centrality of the family on American enterprise. Even with the dramatically changing definition of family, no force ever suggests that families are unimportant. They are the nucleus of a free society. They are the social bedrock. This is true even when human frailty challenges family structures. Families are the foundation of a free society powered by a free enterprise system. Proximity helps create positive long-term impact.
Five: When all of these entities work together to support students in the various aspects of the higher education and community experience, they will likely feel a greater affinity to the region and to the institution where they studied. The states that export the highest number of college students are in New England. Ultimately, the willingness of students to stay, study and work in their home states, impacts state economies. The same principles apply to other regions and states.
Keeping graduates close to home takes teamwork; however, the benefits create positive economic growth.
Walter V. Wendler is president of West Texas A&M University. His columns are available at http://walterwendler.com/.