Online Students Make Great Alumni - Picture of graduate in cap and gown standing in an arena, black and white photo



Students of Online Programs Make Great Alumni

Faye L. Lesht, Marquette University

David Schejbal, Excelsior College

Roxanne Shiels, Penn State World Campus


Correspondence regarding this article should be directed to Faye L. Lesht, Digital Learning, Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI 53233.

E-mail:  [email protected]



Unlike traditional programs, students of online programs often work independently and may never step foot on the campuses from which they earn their degrees.  These students can make great alumni, but they are often overlooked by the institutions from which they earn their online degrees. This paper lends insight into factors influencing student satisfaction in online courses and ways to connect the online student experience with alumni development both while students are earning their degrees online and after graduation. Development of alumni who feel personally connected to the institution starts while they are earning their degrees and that includes what happens in the digital classroom, provision of support services, and various forms of outreach to online students and alumni of online programs.

Keywords:  online students, online program alumni, online alumni giving



Alumni of online programs are an untapped development resource for colleges and universities. A recent multi-institutional study found that alumni of online programs can be quite generous in their giving, especially within the first three years of graduation (Lesht, Schejbal, Shiels, & Mailloux, 2018). This reinforces other studies that demonstrate that alumni of online programs are financial contributors to institutions from which they have graduated (Morrison, 2013; Whitby, 2014). Furthermore, research shows that graduates of online programs are eager to join and contribute through alumni networking opportunities (Morrison, 2013). Hence, institutions would be well-served to track, include, and engage alumni of online programs.

The quality of the relationship between alumni and their alma maters is critical to alumni giving. Cultivating bonds with students in online programs begins while students earn their degrees. Specifically, universities should think strategically about the relationship between the online student experience and the likelihood of those students to feel a connection with the institution from which they are earning their online degree. According to the Gallup-Purdue Index (2014), “Graduates who felt ‘supported’ during their time in college are six times more likely to be emotionally attached to their alma mater” (p. 6). As Shiels (2016) noted, “Creating emotional connections and lasting bonds with online students starts while they are still in school, just as it does with traditional students (p. 48).”

There is very little published on factors influencing giving or engagement on the part of alumni of online programs. However, there is literature on factors influencing satisfaction on the part of online students. Monks (2003), studying factors influencing alumni philanthropy on the part of recent graduates of on-campus programs at select institutions noted, “The most significant determinant of alumni giving levels is the individual’s satisfaction with his or her undergraduate experience” (p. 124). At the same time, in a study of factors influencing giving on the part of alumni of online master’s degree program, Moore (2014) found that “student satisfaction emerged as a relevant factor associated with the propensity for alumni giving among online master’s students” (p. 74). Furthermore, satisfaction contributes to emotional bonds between students and their alma maters.

Development of an effective alumni base begins with the educational experiences online students have while earning their degrees. The authors explore ways to further cultivate relationships with alumni of online programs after graduation.


Pedagogical Considerations

The salient factors contributing to online student satisfaction include course design and opportunities for students to interact with their instructors.  For example, in a multi-country study on student satisfaction and learning in online courses, “course design and the learning content” were found to be most significant (Barbera, Clara, & Linder-Vanberschot, 2013, p. 232) to student satisfaction. That is, the material provided to the students was deemed by them to be relevant and useful.  Direct engagement with instructors and the social presence of students and instructors in courses also contributed significantly-although those aspects were less important to the study’s participants than were course design and course content in terms of factors influencing online student satisfaction.

Similarly, in a study by Kuo, Walker, Belland, & Schroeder (2013) student-to-content interactions, such as  links within material to informative web sites, use of multi-media such as audio-video clips by the instructor or related experts as well as student-to-instructor interactions were found to significantly impact student course satisfaction.  Student-to-student interaction was not a meaningful predictor of student satisfaction, nor was self-regulation (student pacing) of their experiences. Internet self-efficacy (student’s ease of use of online tools), however, was important.

A related three-year study by Cole, Shelley, & Swartz (2014) replicated the findings that student-to-instructor interaction and learner-to-content interaction were predictive of student satisfaction in online settings. However, they found that the leading variable associated with student satisfaction in online courses was convenience. In addition, research suggests that facility with technology on the part of students (Kuo et al., 2013) and facility with technology on the part of instructors (Cole et al., 2014) impacts online student satisfaction.  These latter trends may also be indicative of the growing numbers of digital natives. As students become more proficient in using educational tools online, they expect instructors to easily use such tools as well.

At the same time, there have been mixed results regarding the significance of student-to-student interaction related to satisfaction of online students.  Earlier work on the matter indicated that student-to-student interaction was important to online student satisfaction (Johnston, Killion, & Oomen, 2005; Lorenzo, 2010), but more recent studies suggest that it is less important now than it was in the past (Kuo et al., 2013; Moore, Warner, & Jones, 2016).

To learn more about student perceptions of required student-to-student interactions, Lesht and Schejbal (2019) conducted an interview-based study with students at four institutions across the United States. Thirty-three students participated in the qualitative study, and a key lesson learned was that required online interactions between students must be perceived as authentic (an act of natural expression) in order to be experienced positively by students. Student-to-student interactions that students perceived as rote, checking a box exercises, were perceived negatively as wasted time. A few students noted that they appreciated student-to-student interactions in order not to feel isolated in their online courses, reinforcing Besendorfer’s (2015) observation that “Online learning also has its own drawbacks, such as the potential to feel isolated as a student.” (p. 2).

One way to address both authenticity and isolation is through community building opportunities for online students that are both flexible and relevant to their lives.   For example, in the study of student perceptions of required student-to-student interactions in online courses by Lesht & Schejbal (2019), a few participants expressed that having an online discussion area where students  were able to informally share impressions  among themselves of the program, ask questions of each other regarding ways to manage challenging aspects of the online environment, and share real-world application of course materials, helped engender a sense of community without being forced to do so.  Another possibility is to invite online students to join local alumni chapters and to provide engagement opportunities via social media and the internet.


Student Support Services for Online Degree Students

Student support services are important to online students.  A study of persistence among online students enrolled in a doctoral program found that support services were “individually influential in a candidates’ choice to persist” (Rockinson-Szapkiw, Spaulding & Spaulding, 2016, p. 108).  These include “advisors, librarians, writing and statistics coaches” (p. 109) with availability that spans the entire week and weekend.  Support services for online students were linked to student satisfaction by Britto & Rush (2013) as well as through select interviews with administrators of online programs (Friedman, 2015).

Support can also take the form of structured mentoring.  For instance, at Western Governors University (WGU), which only enrolls students in online programs, students are guided by faculty members from the time they begin their programs through completion.  WGU has found the model helpful for student satisfaction and student retention.  As noted by Besendorfer (2014):


Every WGU student receives a faculty mentor assigned to support the student from the beginning of the program through graduation. The mentor and student communicate by phone at least weekly in the beginning. Faculty mentors fill a variety of support roles: cheerleader, accountability coach, encourager, technical support and friend. (p. 2).

Another support service influencing student satisfaction is career services for online students and alumni.  Between 2017 and 2018, career services—as an important need on the part of online students and alumni—jumped from number 6 to number 2 among the key preferences of an online education according to studies by Clinefelter & Aslanian (2017) and Magda & Aslanian (2018), respectively.  Both studies were based on survey data of 1500 past, current, and prospective fully online students.  Magda & Aslanian (2018) note that “Online access to career services, including opportunities to engage with a counselor or mentor, is an integral part of a high-touch institution’s value, and students are taking advantage of the opportunity to achieve stronger outcomes upon graduation” (p. 6).  Career services is often cited as an incentive for recruitment of online students.  Informing students of services for graduates of online programs reinforces the bond created with the program during matriculation.


Studying on Campus and Studying Online: An Existential Difference

Philanthropic giving is a complex and multi-faceted process.  As noted earlier in this paper, satisfaction with one’s educational experience is a major predictor of charitable giving and engagement on the part of alumni.  Satisfaction contributes to emotional attachment which tends to strengthen institutional affinity and can lead to alumni engagement in a variety of ways, including philanthropic giving.  It is important to note that alumni of online programs have different expectations of the schools from which they graduate than do alumni of online programs.

Factors that contribute to satisfaction for students studying in residential settings include both academic (Ropp, 2014; Hoyt, 2004) and non-academic experiences on campus. For example, Pinion (2016) found that involvement in multiple campus academic and non-academic activities was predictive of alumni giving.  In a study focusing on a Malaysian institution, lack of student experience was correlated with low giving on the part of alumni (Saraih, Nordin, Rahman, & Ramian, 2017).

At this point in our exploration it is important to consider that student satisfaction is not confined to pedagogy.  As the authors indicated earlier, the approach to cultivating students of online programs begins early.  In fact, students choosing to study online identified convenience and flexibility (Venable, 2019) as important satisfaction factors and rated them above opportunities to engage in student clubs and extracurricular activities.  This is especially important for graduate students. Based on a survey of current students and alumni of an online MBA program, Rydzewski, Eastman, & Bocchi (2010) found that convenience, or “availability” was the leading consideration on the part of students in terms of what made a difference to them regarding the program.  At the same time, the authors of that study emphasize that “having availability, while important, is not enough.” (p. 40).  Other factors identified were quality of the program, how long it would take to complete the program, anticipated financial investment, and the nature of the courses offered as part of the program.  That is, building emotional connections with online students requires careful consideration of program design.  While program design is beyond the scope of this paper, there are two important, related points.

First, in certain respects, online students—undergraduate and graduate—resemble characteristics described by Mastroieni (2010) of typical graduate students.  She pointed out that there are significant differences between a satisfying student experience at the graduate level compared to the undergraduate level.   For example, graduate students are typically less concerned with campus life than are residential undergraduate students; they often work independently; and generally, draw their supports from faculty, staff, and students of their home departments rather than from multiple points on campus.

Second, online students can find their course experiences more satisfying than their residential counterparts.  For example, while exploring factors that predict alumni philanthropic behavior on the part of graduates of online and on-campus MBA programs, Ketter (2013) found that the online graduates “forged stronger and more lasting relationships with students” and were more satisfied with their programs than were alumni of a comparison traditional MBA group.  It should be noted that the iMBA program in Ketter’s study was based on a cohort model where the same set of students work together from matriculation to graduation, and it included a two-week in person workshop that enabled students to form ties with each other.  Ketter didn’t study the impact of required student-to-student interactions in online courses on student satisfaction; yet, he suggests that opportunities for students to engage in natural ways may have contributed to online student satisfaction with the program.  Ketter also indicated that for all students, positive student and alumni experience encouraged future giving to the institution.


Outreach to Online Program Students and Alumni

Cultivating alumni of online programs is a complex process that includes students’ experiences while they earn their degrees and their engagement after graduation. Consequently, cultivating online alumni is a team effort involving academic and administrative leaders and staff members of the institution. It is important to keep in mind that no two institutions are the same. Outreach efforts to online students and alumni need to be tailored to fit the values and norms of the providing entity.  At the same time, some themes apply across higher education related to relationship building with students and alumni, including alumni of online programs.

In a dissertation comparing attitudes and giving behaviors of alumni of an online and a residential MBA program, Guild (2018) found no significant difference between the likelihood of making a donation to the institution on the part of on-campus or online graduates.  The study was based on graduates of the “professional” program at Colorado State University.  At the time of the study, the programs were identical with curriculum content for the online students provided through videos and recordings based on courses offered to the residential students in the program.  This should encourage connection with online students and alumni of online programs. As Guild notes: 


There should be less concern, in this instance, that the online MBA group is less likely to give than the traditional face-to-face group. In practice, this should equate to fundraising efforts for online alumni with equal expectation of positive outcomes as is expected for the traditional alumni group. Efforts to cultivate those alumni groups might be different, given their experiences and circumstances, but the efforts are likely to pay off similarly. (p. 91)

Likewise, in a dissertation by Watson (2018) examining organizational identification and giving patterns among alumni of non-residential programs, it was found that distance students do identify with the institutions from which they earn their degrees.  In fact, there was no statistically significant difference in level of identification between distance students who lived within 50 miles of the offering institution and students living further away from campus. Student satisfaction and institutional prestige influenced organizational identification.  As Watson (2018, p. ii) notes, “the supportive behaviors of financial giving and promoting the institution are influenced by the organizational identity of distance alumni.” This reinforces the relationship between the online student experience and propensity for charitable giving to institutions from which online students earn their degrees.


To that end, the following describes a variety of potential outreach efforts on the part of academic and administrative personnel that have been useful in certain institutional settings.

Institutions’ abilities to discern alumni of online programs is important.  Yet colleges and universities are not necessarily able to identify alumni of online programs and thus could be missing an opportunity to effectively reach graduates of online programs (Berger, 2016; Hennessy, 2016; Ketter, 2013).  In an article by Lesht & Schejbal (2019), the benefits of segmenting student data go beyond cultivating alumni of online programs and include targeted outreach to online students as well as being helpful when administrators are asked to prepare internal and external reports (e.g., annual distance education survey requested by U.S. News & World Report.)  As noted by Lesht & Schejbal (2019), the University of Missouri-Columbia’s Mizzou Online has made strides in segmenting online student data.  They use an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system to segment student data by instructional delivery type.  This has enabled them to track time-to-degree on the part of online students, to develop services for online students, and has also been useful for external reporting.

According to a Penn State study conducted by Socient Associates (2014), twenty-three percent of Penn State online students said that having contact with alumni chapters in major US cities was extremely desirable.  In response, Penn State began pilot programs in San Diego, CA and Washington, D.C. to provide social opportunities and encouragement to online students. A Penn State alumni relations professional (co-author of this publication) met with chapter leaders to envision how to best incorporate local online students within their community. The outcome was the creation of an online student “adoption” strategy that included inviting local students within their chapter region to join these Penn State chapters free of charge, inviting students to alumni events, sending students encouraging cards and small Penn State memorabilia, and reimagining local chapter events such as holiday parties and “Freshman Sendoffs” to include online students and their families, as described in an article by Laskowski (2017). In addition, San Diego chapter leadership voted to expand their academic scholarship program with scholarships for online students.   Both chapters continue most of these practices without assistance from outside the chapters, and they report that students are very active participants and contributors to their chapters and take leadership roles in their activities as alumni.  Such engagement with chapters is one possible way to increase affinity to the University, opening doors to philanthropic giving.

Graduation ceremonies and events have also proven to be excellent affinity-building engagements.  Penn State and other institutions hold separate graduation events for those who attend commencement on campus such as tours of campus, dinner, and other recreational components.  At some institutions, celebrations and commencement are streamed for those unable to attend in person; at many institutions graduates of online programs are included with their respective colleges as they receive their diplomas.

After students graduate, it is possible to engage alumni of online programs for the benefit of the institution and prospective students.   For instance, online alumni may volunteer to participate in videos which helps promote the institution and its online programs to prospective students, highlights successful alumni and compelling stories, and also reinforces to the alumni their importance to the institution.  An example of this approach is found at the University of Florida  Engagement can also include inviting alumni of online programs to serve on alumni advisory boards.  As noted by Fred Weiss of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE, 2019), “Alumni attachment with alma mater means far more than just philanthropic support; they are engaged as volunteers, they interact on social and in other ways, and they participate in a broad range of experiential activities” (p. 1).  This applies to alumni of online programs, too.


The strategic connection between student satisfaction with online programs and subsequent giving on the part of alumni of online programs is of critical importance to higher education. Satisfaction on the part of online students is enhanced through thoughtful program design including quality interactions that students have with online content as well as with instructors.  Interactions with other students should be carefully considered to ensure that it is authentic and strengthens knowledge and skills rather than being a course formality.  Outreach to students in online programs in terms of support services and alumni development opportunities, reinforces to the online students that they are as much part of the institution as are residential students.

Furthermore, as alumni of online programs are often working while they are earning their degrees, early after graduation they can make generous gifts to the institution.  However, for that to occur, customized solicitation is warranted, reinforcing the need for being able to easily identify online alumni in the alumni database.

Most, albeit not all, studies of factors influencing charitable giving on the part of online and distance students to institutions from which they earned their degrees has been through dissertations and are often based on experiences of students and alumni of one institution.  National, multi-institutional studies, examining the relationship between the online student experience and subsequent giving to colleges and universities from which their degrees where earned is warranted.  Through further exploration institutions of higher education can gain insight to further tap the growing population of graduates of online programs.

Ultimately, students of online programs can make great alumni.



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Brief bios

Faye L. Lesht is research associate professor at Marquette University.  She has over 30 years administrative leadership experience in online and continuing higher education.

David Schejbal is president of Excelsior College. He writes and speaks broadly about higher education and how higher education is shaped by social, economic, technological, and political forces.

Roxanne Shiels is the director of alumni strategy at Penn State World Campus. She has more than 20 years’ experience performing alumni relations in a professional and executive volunteer leadership capacity.