For nearly twenty years, alumni associations and networks have taken on strategic importance for the Grandes Ecoles. Although their activities have long been centered on the publication of a directory of graduates, the organization of a few events bringing together the most loyal alumni, and the sharing of career testimonials with new promotions, many human and financial resources are now available. invested to energize them.
In a context where digital social networks, especially professional ones, open up credible alternatives to this type of organization, has their role been redefined? Why do they remain essential to the influence of these sectors despite everything?
Networks to structure
The Grandes Ecoles have always paid close attention to alumni networks. First, because they help guarantee the initial job promise of this type of training. Historically, engineering schools, for example, train executives with technical skills to meet the needs identified by the ministries of industry or agriculture and business schools for “managers” .in response to business requests from the Chambers of Commerce and Industry. And alumni networks are a useful link to internships and work-study contracts for students or to access a first job for graduates. Then, because they generally constitute a “space” where the spirit of community and cohesion developed during the years of study continues.
In recent years, initiatives to densify and diversify the activities of these networks have multiplied. Dedicated services or associations in charge of graduates have seen their staff increase and become more professional. Memberships of new students in the alumni association are now almost all “for life”. The events offered to them (conferences, afterwork, creation of branches in France and abroad, alumni day within establishments, participation in juries, etc.) are also more and more numerous. But, beyond the desire to strengthen ties with their former students, these structuring efforts also reflect the growing strategic importance of these networks for these sectors.
With the appearance of online social networks, especially professional ones, soliciting former students from your establishment has become much easier than before. The links between former students thus depend less and less on the institution from which they come.
However, if social networks make it possible to keep in touch and to energize a professional network , it remains necessary to animate the community and its activities. And a specific structure will take the time to do so and will have the legitimacy to solicit all the alumni, whatever their background and their previous links.
The rise of continuing education
By massifying and globalizing , higher education has become much more competitive and accreditations and rankings, national and international, have multiplied . After a period when these were essentially based on statements from establishments, they now take more and more account of the opinions of graduates to issue their labels or establish their hierarchies. Alumni are solicited from all sides and their feelings have become strategic to guarantee the reputation and influence of a sector and an establishment.
This ability of alumni networks to control and channel feedback from graduates is also part of the development of the concept of “student experience”. This is defined as the set of experiences experienced by students, not only at the time of their studies, but also from the moment they become interested in a course… and then when they have graduated from it. The relationship between students and their institution is therefore no longer simply centered on the period of study but is now perceived as a “continuum” which begins even before entering school and which continues throughout their lives. .
But the development of the activities of alumni networks also covers more direct economic issues for these sectors. Despite the increase in the budget devoted to higher education for several years, the means appear insufficient to deal with the regular influx of new students and the shortcomings of the current system. The continuing education offer is one of the new sources of funding that institutions have developed to meet these needs.
If the growth of this “executive education” is linked to the new and fairly recent development in France of the idea of ”lifelong learning” , it also appears, for the establishments concerned, as a source of additional income to the traditional funding (tuition fees for initial training, state funding, etc.). Having structured and sustained relationships with alumni makes it possible to present and offer these training courses, individually and to the companies of which they are now part. And thus improve their marketing and profitability.
The challenge of fundraising
As part of the diversification of their income and in the face of pressure to increase their social impact , the French Grandes Ecoles have been developing fundraising activities for several years. The model is that of Anglo-Saxon universities, especially American ones, which see certain graduates, now wealthy, pay them sometimes colossal sums to help them finance some of their activities. Sometimes resulting in a change of name of the institution in honor of this donor, as evidenced by the example of the business school of Northwestern University near Chicago renamed JL Kellogg Graduate School of Management in 1979 .
The French Grandes Ecoles have therefore been soliciting donations from their graduates for several years. But, despite the success of a few fundraisers such as those of HEC and Polytechnique , these solicitations suffer, for less prestigious French establishments, from strong cultural differences with Anglo-Saxon countries.
Beyond the reputation and the professions to which they lead, French students often choose their courses according to the courses offered. American students look a lot at the alumni network and the profile of graduates. And therefore integrate very early on the idea of making a donation to their original sector in recognition of what it has enabled them to accomplish, despite the price of their studies being much higher than in France. In France, the idea of public and free education remains dominant . Making substantial donations to one’s former establishment, even after having made a fortune, therefore remains very marginally considered while the tuition fees for the majority of these courses are already perceived as too high.
Finally, and despite the generally successful development of the networks of alumni of the Grandes Ecoles in France, these cultural differences undoubtedly constitute one of the main obstacles to their being able to further reinforce their importance and weight and thus go beyond the missions that were assigned to them when they were created.
Author Bio: Olivier Guyottot is a Teacher-Researcher in strategy and political science at INSEEC Grande École