Search form

What comes next?

Alumni can help students in an important area where schools sometimes fall short.

Educators increasingly are encouraged to promote college and career exploration, but too often the important endeavor is an afterthought at schools, where there never seems to be enough people or enough time to undertake it. Some schools, however, are finding creative ways to use their former students to fill that gap.           

While colleges have long valued alumni, the use of former students by K-12 schools has been spotty, but some advocates say they can offer valuable financial support for students, and information and guidance at all levels when it comes to something the alumni have experienced: colleges and careers.

Increasingly, experts are saying K-12 students don't spend enough time understanding the process for exploring advanced education and careers – nor their options. They find getting funds difficult – or finding scholarships. And that's where alumni can help.           

At the high school level, the Richmond, IN, High School Alumni Association, which claims to be the third oldest in the country, has provided more than $1 million in scholarships to graduates, according to Bridget Hazelbaker who coordinates the program. The scholarship program provides students with from $3,000 to $6,000 if they have over a 2.5 GPA, log community service hours and attend county colleges.           

The Salem, OH, High School Alumni Association presented students at the school with 97 scholarships valued at nearly $335,000, making the total donated to the students $7.2 million since the group started offering the assistance in 1908. The association provides about a third of the school's seniors with merit scholarships or support for their excellence in a field, including vocational pursuits, according to Audrey Null, executive director for the association.

At Lewisville, TX, High School, another active alumni group provides laptop computers to more than a dozen graduating seniors. "I had 12 years of caring, excellent teachers in Lewisville and I can't think of a better way to thank the school district," says Michele Ramsey, a professor at a Pennsylvania State University campus who grew up in Lewisville and helped start the program.            

But alumni don’t just provide money or technology.           

Jeff Stein, project director for Alumni Toolkit, part of an international non-profit called First Future that connects alumni with their schools, says he doesn’t understand why high school administrators aren't using alumni more often to help guide their students.

"In this is an age of thinking differently about underutilized resources and finding better solutions it just makes sense," he says, "Alumni advocacy has so much potential to support schools, inspire students and reward educators."

He notes that alumni can help schools in several ways – serving as mentors and role models or helping them with the application process and then providing them with a network of professionals.            

Ryan Rismiller, principal at Graham High School in Saint Paris, OH, is also an advocate for high school's prioritizing college exploration and college readiness, but believes alumni can provide information to students at any level about careers and colleges. Schools use alumni to speak at college nights, to present information about their own colleges or even help with career days at the middle and elementary school level.            

Alumni of any age can come into various age classrooms to talk about college or trade school exploration or admissions, he says. Former students can help give students an opportunity to try hands on activities — from dog grooming or nursing to legal arguments and architecture. With enough planning, an activity can be planned for any level that students will enjoy and benefit from – and that alumni will find fulfilling.

High school students can even discuss school preparations for post-secondary work or explain the advanced placement courses, the college admissions testing process or how they approached exploration of higher education. Or they can work with elementary school students on career exploration as a service project.

It results in the alumni being active with the school which can lead to other involvement or to a network of others outside the school who can help. It also can bolster school culture to have former students involved. "It's a win-win," says Stein.

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim Paterson is a writer, contributing to a variety of national publications, most recently specializing in education. During a break from writing for a period, he was the head of a school counseling department. (