WPI Journal

Spring 1996

Alumni Speak Out

by Michael W. Dorsey

Each spring, the WPI community gathers for a ritual filled with tradition and marked by dignity and emotion. In a ceremony that has transpired 128 times since WPI opened its doors, the members of the graduating class, adorned in black robes and mortarboard caps, stride one by one across a gaily decorated stage to receive their diplomas and march off into the ranks of alumni.

Commencement is both an end and a beginning. Just as it brings down the curtain on a student's campus days, distilling into memories the many hours spent studying, learning and building friendships with classmates, it opens the door on a new type of relationship with the Institute. For some, it is an active affiliation, filled with homecoming weekends, class reunions and annual support of the WPI Alumni Fund. For others, the connection is more passive, sustained largely by the continual stream of news about WPI and fellow graduates delivered by the Institute's publications.

But whether graduates stay in touch with their alma mater or keep their distance, they represent the Institute's single most important constituency. Alumni provide WPI with about 85 percent of all the dollars it raises from individuals. Graduates play an important role in recruiting new students, either actively as Alumni Admissions volunteers or indirectly as ambassadors for WPI in their communities. Alumni help students launch their careers by providing opportunities for internships and co-op experiences, by participating in career fairs and job shadowing programs, and by hiring fellow graduates. More and more, alumni are making a difference in WPI's educational efforts by advising or sponsoring student projects and helping out with the creation and management of oversees project centers. Many alumni volunteer time to the Institute as trustees or members of many Alumni Association and campus committees. And all graduates, by talking about the university to friends, fellow employees and young people, help build and expand WPI's reputation.

Given the many ways alumni contribute to the Institute's success, one might guess that WPI would know a great deal about what this important group thinks about a wide range of issues. In reality, of course, tapping into the thoughts and opinions of more than 22,000 men and women who live and work all around the world is no easy task. Last summer, for the first time ever, the WPI Alumni Association decided to do just that. To take the pulse of this widespread group, the association, in concert with the University Relations Office and the Provost's Office, contracted with the Gallup Organization to conduct a comprehensive survey of the alumni body.

"There have been a few surveys -- both formal and informal -- over the years that have questioned different groups of alumni about specific topics," notes Sharon Davis, director of alumni affairs. "But until now, there has never been a comprehensive study of our entire alumni body that asked not only what they think about their relationship with the Alumni Association, but how they view their WPI educations and the management and future directions of the Institute. This survey really broke new ground and provided some quite interesting and useful results."

The survey was overseen by a subcommittee of the Alumni Association Executive Committee. Chaired by Patricia G. Flaherty '75, the subcommittee also included Joel P. Greene '69, Joseph J. Maggi '67, Robert E. Maynard '63, Samuel Mencow '38, Patrick T. Moran '65 and Katherine M. Vignaly '84. The questionnaire was designed by Gallup with considerable input from the committee and from WPI's Alumni, Provost's, Student Life and University Relations offices.

In August 1995, Gallup's trained telephone interviewers began calling a random sample of 841 WPI graduates, who were divided nearly equally into four groups according to their undergraduate class year: 1985 to the present; 1975 to 1984; 1965 to 1974; and 1964 and earlier. The interviews, designed to last about 18 minutes, covered a broad range of topics, ranging from graduates' perceptions of WPI's quality to their memories of their educational and social experience at WPI to their opinions about WPI's fundraising strategies to their satisfaction with the Journal and the WPI Wire, the Institute's primary communications links with its graduates.

In the pages that follow, we present a summary of some of the major findings.

How WPI Ranks

Recognizing that WPI graduates represent an important adjunct to the Institute's efforts to expand and enhance its reputation and name recognition, the survey sought to find out how alumni rate their alma mater and how they think the public at large perceives of the university. Overall, respondents compared their alma mater quite favorably to some of the top universities in the nation, and said they believe that the public at large holds a positive opinion of WPI, as well (those who have heard of the Institute, that is).

Respondents were asked to rate WPI and eight other universities (including some of the Institute's most important competitors for students) on a five-point scale. The results are presented in Table 1; they show that alumni placed WPI ahead of some of the nation's top technological universities. In fact, only MIT and California Institute of Technology earned higher mean ratings than WPI. By very slight margins, alumni who graduated in 1965 or earlier rated WPI higher than more recent grads, and male graduates, overall, ranked WPI slightly higher than female graduates. Regular donors to WPI (those who have given within the last five years) assigned the Institute higher marks than those who have not supported WPI regularly.

Alumni were also asked which university they believe to be WPI's closest competitor. Overall, 84 percent named Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute or MIT, with Rensselaer accounting for about two thirds of the replies. Cal Tech and Carnegie Mellon were each mentioned by about 2 percent of respondents. According to the WPI Admissions Office, Rensselaer is, indeed, WPI's most important competitor. About 33 percent of students who apply to WPI also apply to Rensselaer. Other major competitors are, in descending order, Boston University, Northeastern University, Tufts University and the University of Massachusetts. Carnegie Mellon, Cornell and MIT all rank just below these schools.

Asked to place themselves in the shoes of the general public, 62 percent of respondents said they think the average person has a favorable impression of WPI; 14 percent said they believe the Institute is viewed extremely favorably, while 16 percent said WPI is "OK" in the public eye. Some 6 percent of respondents said they believe the public, as a whole, does not know WPI at all.

Two questions asked graduates to name what they consider to be WPI's strongest and weakest programs. Confusion over the meaning of the word "program" in the question may have contributed to the wide range of responses received, though the answers do provide a clue as to what alumni tend to think of first when they ponder academics at WPI.

For example, while the Institute has made the WPI Plan, its innovative, project-based undergraduate program, the focus of much of its marketing efforts - particularly in its communications to prospective students - only 9 percent of respondents said the Plan is WPI's strongest program. However, 15 percent placed projects - the centerpiece of the Plan - at the top of the list. When combined, these two responses were mentioned by 24 percent of respondents, placing the Plan No. 2 on the list. (When the 3 percent of alumni who named the undergraduate program are added in, the Plan rises to the top.)

Of the top six programs mentioned, five are academic disciplines. They are electrical engineering (26 percent), mechanical engineering (23 percent), computer science (12 percent), engineering in general (11 percent), and chemical engineering (9 percent). Biology and Biotechnology was mentioned by 6 percent of respondents, environmental engineering by 4 percent, and fire protection engineering by 2 percent.

More than a third of respondents said they could not name WPI's weakest program; another 8 percent said WPI has no weak programs. The percentage of alumni who did not name a specific program increased steadily with the length of time since graduation. Where 17 percent of alumns in the classes of 1985 to the present answered "don't know," 29 percent of members of the classes of 1975 to 1984, 39 percent of those in the classes of 1965 to 1974, and 52 percent of grads in the Class of 1964 and earlier gave that answer. The only program cited as weak by a substantial number of alumni was the humanities (26 percent, overall), with 37 percent of recent graduates singling out this discipline.

Experiences, Positive and Negative

Another set of questions asked participants to reflect, in general terms, on the experience they had as students at WPI. Table 2 lists the answers given most frequently to the question, "What was the best single experience you had at WPI?" The answer given more often than any other was "graduating." For alumni who graduated since the start of the WPI Plan, project work was the top choice, given by 20 percent of alumni in the classes of 1975 to 1984 and a third of those who graduated more recently. Earlier Plan graduates gave equal weight to graduating and to passing the Competency Exam, the do-or-die graduation requirement that was phased out about a decade ago in favor of departmental distribution requirements. Interestingly, the social side of campus life - friendships with classmates and faculty members, meeting one's future spouse, extracurricular activities, and sports - was mentioned by few alumni.

In fact, asked to list two positive experiences they remember from their student days, alumni, by a wide margin, pointed to academic experiences (project work, academic excellence, helpful professors, academic environment, and hard work and discipline) more often than social experiences (fraternity and sorority life, social events, friendships, and extracurricular activities), as Table 2 shows. Overall, fewer than half of respondents recall negative experiences related to WPI (this percentage dropped dramatically with time since graduation, ranging from 52 percent for the most recent graduates to 29 percent for those who graduated in 1964 or earlier).

Of the alumni who had a negative memory, most attributed it to an individual professor. "Bad social scene" was the top answer for graduates from the classes of 1975 to 1984, and "hard work/high pressure" was mentioned by 13 percent of graduates from the classes of 1965 to 1974. Other factors listed by more than 5 percent of respondents were financial problems (mentioned more frequently by recent grads), "fraternity/sorority" and poor grades. Prejudice was cited by 12 percent of women who reported negative memories, but only 2 percent of men. Men were more likely than women to cite a bad social scene, while women were far more likely than men to point to the lopsided ratio of male to female students.

The Alumni Experience

One of the most important roles of the Alumni Association is to keep graduates engaged with their alma mater by offering a range of programs and services tuned to graduates' interests, needs and schedules. Informal feedback from alumni who partake of those services and programs, and the raw numbers - how many people participate and how many don't - offer some guidance to the alumni staff about which programs are useful and enjoyable. Through the survey, the association sought to probe deeper.

The survey revealed that fewer than half of graduates have ever used an alumni association program or service. Not surprisingly, graduates who live in the Northeast were the most likely to have taken advantage of what the association offers, while grads in the western and south central U.S. were the least likely (international alumni were not polled). The participation level increased somewhat with time since graduation, and active donors and graduates who received both their bachelor's and advanced degrees from WPI were much more likely to have used the association's services than nondonors and those who earned advanced degrees elsewhere.

Of those who said they had joined in association activities, about a third said they'd attended either Reunion or Homecoming. Homecoming was most popular with younger alumni (more than half of graduates of 1985 to the present have attended this event; only 16 percent of those in the classes of 1964 and earlier have), while the popularity of Reunion (an event for classes celebrating major reunions, beginning with the 10th) appears to grow with the passage of the years (about 40 percent of grads from the classes of 1965 to 1984 have attended a reunion; 54 percent of members of the classes of 1964 and earlier have come back to campus for this spring event).

Of those who had attended Alumni Association events, more than three quarters found them to be at least somewhat effective (somewhat effective, 49 percent; very effective, 27 percent). Those who did not rate the programs "very effective" were asked why they weren't more effective, and all respondents were asked how alumni events could be improved. The most prevalent answers centered on low attendance at the events, inadequate advertising or advance notice for events, and a need for better content or content more in tune with the interest of alumni.

To get a better feel for why alumni do not attend events, or attend more often, the survey asked participants who had not been to an event for at least five years (or who could not remember attending an event) what kept them away. More than 40 percent said the events were simply too far away. Another 26 percent said they were too busy with work, family and other responsibilities. Thirteen percent said they had no interest in the events or didn't feel they needed to attend, while 8 percent said they didn't know what was going on or didn't feel connected to WPI. Interestingly, the percentage of alumni giving each of these responses varied little among the four age groups, although women were more likely than men to say they are too busy to attend events. Not surprisingly, the farther away graduates live from Worcester, the more likely they were to say that events are too far away.

Perceptions of WPI

To gauge alumni opinions on a wide range of topics relating to WPI today, participants were read a list of statements and asked whether they agreed or disagreed. Some of the results are displayed in Table 3. Most encouraging, 96 percent of alumni surveyed said they would recommend WPI to prospective students. At least 90 percent of respondents said they agreed that WPI's project-based educational program is the right approach for students today, that WPI is a positive community in which to learn, and that the faculty helps students learn.

A few questions were asked only of graduates of the WPI Plan era. For example, 71 percent of this group felt women students are comfortable at WPI (women were not admitted as students until 1968) and 16 percent said they believe faculty members' research takes too much time away from teaching (WPI has had a significant research program only in the last few decades).

Another group of statements focused on the student experience at WPI (see Table 3). Again, alumni gave high marks to their WPI education. More than 90 percent of alumni said the WPI faculty had taught them well and helped them learn. Participants also said, by margins of at least 80 percent, that their education prepared them well for their careers and prepared them to work quickly, to solve problems at work and to work well in teams. Eighty percent said their education contributed to their interpersonal, social and leadership skills. Only 54 percent of alumni said they agreed that their education had made them more concerned about social issues, although students who graduated under the Plan (with its emphasis on the interaction between science, technology and society) were more likely to feel WPI had made them socially aware.

Keeping Informed

If the survey results are a good indication, WPI alumni do not feel as well informed about WPI as they'd like (see graphic below). About a third described themselves as not very familiar or not familiar at all with what is happening at the Institute today. Only 9 percent described themselves as very familiar with the current state of their alma mater. Most respondents said the bulk of the news they receive about WPI arrives in their mail-boxes in the form of publications, mailings from the Alumni Association, and class and department newsletters (only 3 percent overall learn about WPI through their local newspapers).

Because of the importance of these printed communication vehicles, the survey devoted several questions to perceptions about the WPI Journal and its sister publication, the WPI Wire. In the interest of time, half of those surveyed were asked to comment on the Journal and half on the Wire. Readership patterns for both publications were virtually identical - about a third of alumni said they read them thoroughly and about two thirds page through them. Only 2 percent of respondents said they never read WPI's alumni publications.

Readers of both publications said they enjoy getting news about other alumni, particularly their classmates, and keeping up to date on current events and activities at WPI. At least 10 percent of Journal readers said they also like the topics the magazine covers, the variety of articles and the coverage of the faculty. About 70 percent of readers had no suggestions for how either publication could be improved. Those who did offer suggestions asked for more information on alumni, current events and students, and more variety in the articles. Five percent of Wire readers would like to see the tabloid published more frequently.

Financial Matters

Contributions from alumni help WPI meet its expenses, offer new programs, provide students with financial aid, and expand, renovate and maintain its physical plant. Currently, about 30 percent of graduates make contributions in any given year, while 46 percent have supported their alma mater during the past five years. To understand why more alumni are not regular donors, and to get insights into what makes WPI graduates want to give - or not want to give - the survey included several questions about fund raising.

More than 80 percent of respondents reported that they usually support organizations and causes with financial contributions, and just over 70 percent said they recall supporting WPI during the last five years. The percentage who give in general and give to WPI rose steadily with time since graduation. Table 4 summarizes the reasons offered by the survey group for giving to the Institute.

People who reported making no contributions to WPI in the last five years were asked if there was a specific reason they had not donated. Of these, 12 percent refused to answer or said there was no specific reason. More than half of these nondonors cited financial reasons or gifts to other organizations. Sixteen percent cited discontent with WPI - a poor undergraduate experience, a feeling that WPI is not deserving or as deserving as other groups, and a lack of agreement with WPI. A poor undergraduate experience was cited by 10 to 12 percent of grads in the classes of 1975 to 1984 and 1964 and earlier.

The majority of respondents said WPI's fund-raising efforts and materials are at least somewhat effective (somewhat effective, 51 percent; very effective, 28 percent). The 72 percent who did not find those efforts and materials to be very effective were asked why. About a quarter could point to no specific reason. Ten percent said solicitations occur too often. Other reasons cited included the need for more creativity, a need to define better how WPI will use funds alumni donate, and the need to communicate in a more effective, more personal and "less pushy" manner. When asked what type of communication would be most likely to make them want to give, more than a third said a contact from a classmate. Fund-raising publications, a call from a student and a letter from the Alumni Association were other popular suggestions.

Dear WPI...

Before the phone interviews drew to a close, interviewers asked alumni, first, what that believed to be the greatest challenges WPI faces today, and, second, whether they had any advice for those who manage WPI's day-to-day affairs. The top answers to both questions are printed in Table 5. More than 35 percent of the responses to the first question focused on the challenge of maintaining the quality of, improving, or broadening the Institute's educational programs. More than 20 percent focused on financial issues (keeping costs down and offering students adequate aid), while nearly 20 percent thought the biggest challenge is maintaining adequate and up-to-date facilities. About 10 percent said WPI's effort to expand its reputation and create a national image for itself were at the top of the list.

About a third of alumni had no advice to offer or simply asked WPI to keep doing the good job they say it is doing. Twenty percent suggested WPI keep its focus on students and maintaining the quality of its programs. Maintaining the quality of the WPI Plan was a special concern for younger alumni.

What's Next?

All too often, major studies like the survey of WPI alumni are completed, read and placed on a shelf to gather dust. "That won't happen with this study," Davis says. "There are some provocative findings that will be of use to many people and departments at WPI. We've already shared the survey results with everyone who may find them of value, including the Admissions Office and the Provost's Office. In particular, the level of satisfaction alumni feel with their education and with the educational focus of the Institute should be important input to our marketing to prospective students and out efforts to improve our educational programs. The results on fund raising have already proved valuable to the members of the Alumni Fund Board, which recently approved a new five-year plan for the Fund."

Davis says the Alumni Association will use the survey as the foundation of a major effort to draft a new five-year master plan for alumni activities and programs. The plan is expected to be approved during the next academic year. To expand upon the findings concerning attitudes about alumni programs and services, the association recently completed a follow-up survey designed by a committee that included, in addition to the members of the original survey subcommittee, Christian Baehrecke '56, Kimberly Bowers '90, Kevin Doyle '89, Stephen Jackson '89, Douglas Nashold '95, Edwin Shivell '54 and Joseph Vignaly '82. Davis says the results are still being tallied.

"Like all of WPI's programs and departments, the Alumni Office has a limited budget with which to provide a wide range of services," Davis says.

"It makes sense for us to use those funds to provide services that our graduates truly enjoy and want, and that are in tune with the kinds of lives they lead today. With the help of the follow-up survey we should be able to reshape our offerings to keep alumni involved in and informed about their university."

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Last Modified: Thu June 10 11:50:21 EDT 1999