Uplifting Students By Engaging Alumni at the University of Chicago
In recent years, the University of Chicago has rapidly climbed in ranking and secured a place at the forefront of innovation in higher education. Among the many areas where UChicago has excelled is preparing students for an increasingly volatile job market. This case study analyzes how Wisr has been a key asset in pursuing that goal.
As American colleges and universities increase recruitment of low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented minority students, the need to expand specialized resources has become evident. Efforts at highly selective institutions to promote access for underserved populations are well-intentioned, but – without corresponding action to support these students – are little more than tokenism. David Kirp, a senior fellow at the Learning Policy Institute, argues:
A recent Pell Institute study found that only one in ten low-income first-generation students attains a bachelor’s degree within 6 years of enrolling at a postsecondary institution. With this in mind, John W. Boyer, Dean of the College at UChicago, emphasized the necessity of continuously supporting students from admission to graduation to job placement.
UChicago administrators believed that personalized advice and coaching – specific to each student’s academic background and career goals – were particularly effective career preparation tools. Accordingly, the Career Advancement team sought to implement a program that would connect students looking to explore careers with professionals working in industries of interest. Ideally, the program would be:
Accessible. Meredith Daw, Associate Vice President & Executive Director of Career Advancement, explained that early career preparation is a critical predictor of future job satisfaction. To engage students early on, the process of exploring advisors needed to be fast, approachable, and universally available.
Scalable. Career Advancement administrators face demanding schedules, so a time-consuming program would be counterproductive. Instead, it would need to operate on minimal staff hours and leave room for expansion without a corresponding increase in administrative labor.
Versatile. Some students hoped to find long-term mentors they could turn to for guidance throughout their full time in college; others needed only an industry expert to answer a few specific questions. The program would need to accommodate both extremes and everyone in between.
With the University of Chicago Campaign: Inquiry and Impact already underway, administrators were focusing time and resources on reconnecting with graduates. In addition to working toward financial goals, the campaign pushed to engage 125,000 alumni – nearly 70% of the total estimated alumni population. With this benchmark in mind, the Alumni Association was seeking scalable opportunities for alumni to build meaningful rapport with the University.
Alumni made clear that they were most interested in discussing topics related to their respective careers directly with current students. Linda Pantale, Assistant Director of Alumni Careers & Programs, spoke to the challenges around facilitating this type of interaction. Most graduates either lived outside the Chicago area or felt that they had insufficient time to become full-fledged mentors. Furthermore, with the Alumni Association manually connecting alumni and students, scaling these interactions would consume excessive staff hours and present a web of complications surrounding privacy.
The convergence of these challenges coincided with the launch of Wisr’s pilot program, and UChicago was the first to join of the five original partners (including Case Western Reserve University, Cedarville University, Denison University, and Oberlin College).
Wisr struck a balance between experience and flexibility. The three co-founders already had decades of combined experience in higher education technology, a track record of building successful companies, and a proven commitment to helping students. Co-founder and CEO Kate Volzer was herself a first-generation college student, and she understood how valuable a tool like Wisr could be for someone without family to turn to for college-specific advice. Unlike many competitors, Wisr embraced a feedback-driven approach to developing a solution. Volzer explained:
Wisr’s network allows UChicago parents, alumni, staff, and faculty to volunteer to advise students on subjects like selecting classes, building a resume, finding an internship, and pursuing a career in a certain industry. Students can search the network by city, industry, company, job title, or degree to find advisors with relevant experience. On finding someone who might be helpful, a student can send a message or request an advisory call – all without exchanging contact information. Wisr’s solution offers all students equal access to a professional network that would otherwise have taken years to nurture.
After joining the pilot program, UChicago administrators faced the question of how best to roll Wisr out to a diverse and global alumni body on top of nearly 15,000 students enrolled between the College and graduate programs. Working closely with a dedicated marketing expert from Wisr, the administrators designed an email campaign to populate the network. The initial invite targeted 9,000 warm alumni of the College, UChicago’s undergraduate institution. As predicted, this cohort – consisting of frequent donors, event attendees, and regular volunteers – returned a high yield of registrations.
With a core of advisors in place, administrators invited select cohorts of students, focusing on the groups that would gain the most from connecting with alumni. To expedite registration, Wisr preverified all students and all alumni with known email addresses. Lori Hurvitz, Executive Director of Alumni Engagement & Annual Giving, noted that Wisr’s targeted goals helped get the network off the ground smoothly:
Less than a year after launching at UChicago, Wisr has become a campus staple for career preparation. Daw was quick to highlight the program’s success, saying:
Within a single platform, Wisr effectively provides 5 key services:
✔ Searchable directory of engaged alumni with supplementary data from LinkedIn
✔ Scalable way students could receive one-on-one career counseling
✔ Structured system for students looking to explore a specific industry
✔ Secure messaging and conference calling without using personal information
✔ Support for groups to share resources, converse, and schedule events
Adoption & Engagement
UChicago’s Wisr network now houses thousands of advisors and students. Hurvitz is confident that alumni volunteers enjoy the experience, pointing to the 99% positive feedback rate and 45-minute average advisory call duration.
One frequent undergraduate user explained how Wisr helped her overcome the anxiety she experienced surrounding networking:
With the UChicago network already hosting several communities – groups of students and advisors who share a common activity, affinity, or interest – administrators have been able to deliberately segment support. The First-Generation College Students community, for example, provides a home for targeted resources, including information about the Center for College Student Success and tips on financial planning.
Administrators were impressed by the network’s effectiveness as an alumni outreach tool. In addition to mining updated contact information like preferred email addresses for previously out-of-contact alumni, Wisr can function as an icebreaker of sorts. In the words of Pantale:
Pantale went on to explain that the program has been especially useful in connecting with young alumni:
A clear link between volunteering through the network and financial giving corroborates this narrative: 78% of advisors on Wisr also make annual donations to the University.
Having successfully connected thousands of students and alumni, Wisr has begun to facilitate conversations among administrators via the Wisr Summit Series. The summits gather outstanding thought leaders in Career Services, Alumni Relations, and Advancement to share strategies that have been effective at their institutions. Meanwhile, the discussions shed light on common challenges among participants, helping the Wisr team better address their pain points. To date, over 60 institutions have attended Wisr summits in cities across the United States.
Neither UChicago nor Wisr sees the network as a finished product. Increasingly, the University has been using Wisr to facilitate student-to-student and alumni-to-alumni networking. Thanks to these experiments, Wisr has been able to replace all post-graduation career advising services for alumni more than 5 years out from graduation, freeing funding for programs like skill trainings and job transition support. Hurvitz sees the logic in tapping into UChicago’s alumni body, noting that her staff could never cover the same breadth of expertise as over 100,000 experienced professionals.
A groundbreaking study by Stanford University’s Caroline Hoxby and Harvard University’s Christopher Avery found that high-achieving, low-income high school students have severely limited access to selective colleges and universities. When a follow-up study concluded that simply exposing these students to basic application information could significantly increase their application rates, the conversation began to shift to the possibility of bringing a resource like Wisr to students before they even set foot on campus. Pantale appreciates the flexible approach and looks forward to seeing where the partnership goes: