Case Study

Portal System Keeps Students, Alumni in Touch at Plymouth State U

By giving current students and all alumni a lifetime e-mail account accessed through a portal, Plymouth State University has enhanced its ability to stay in touch with graduates long after they leave the university.

Beginning in 1999, the New Hampshire university began giving graduating seniors lifetime e-mail accounts; in 2005, with the creation of a portal called MyPlymouth.com, every alum--some 25,000 people--received a lifetime e-mail address hosted by the university, along with use of other services offered free of charge through the portal site.

Integrating Social Networking with Administration
The effect has been to  strengthen the school's bond greatly with both current students and  graduates. According to Joe Long, the university's director of alumni relations, the ability to stay in contact with alumni through a lifetime e-mail address has been invaluable.

"Anyone in alumni relations knows what a tough job it is to stay in touch with recent alumni," Long said. "They move an average of three times in the first two years" after graduation, he said. And, making it even harder to maintain contact, graduates often abandon e-mail addresses and create new, more professional ones as they begin to enter the job market. But with the portal and e-mail accounts, created using the Luminis Platform from Sungard, the relationship is far easier to maintain.

The university selected Luminis from SunGard Higher Education in 2000 and moved to the Banner administrative system, also from SunGard, in 2003. The student portal was created in 2003; the alumni portal was launched in 2005, and the university has continued refining the portals and adding features since.

When the university moved to the Banner administrative system, administrators considered an open source system instead, according to Kenneth Kochien, director of management information systems and instructional technology at PSU. But given the small size of the school, he said he decided that staff limitations dictated a system with more readily available support, a decision he said has paid off. PSU has been able to maintain the portal with a single system administrator, who also spends time developing new aspects of the system.

The Luminis Platform provides portal features, supporting infrastructure, and integrated applications, such as course registration and financial aid applications. Because the portal is integrated with Banner--student and alumni data in the Banner system--the system can recognize and respond appropriately as a user's status changes over time from student, to alumni. The integration also allows single signon, meaning users need to log on just once to access all the functions the system offers.

Immersing students in the portal beginning with their freshman year is key to building a lifelong relationship, according to Kochien. "The data is clear that those who attended the university since 2000, when the portal first went live, are the most active alumni users," he said. "They had a positive experience using the portal during their university years, and now they are coming back to use it as alums."

In addition to e-mail, the portal offers a range of additional services and resources available to both students and alumni, and the university is continually adding services. The alumni portal includes:
  • Information on class reunions;
  • Alumni scholarships and awards;
  • An alumni directory;
  • Unofficial transcripts; and
  • Weather reports.
An online giving application was implemented in fall 2004 that has increased online gifts fourfold.

Attracting Alumni to the System
By partnering with third parties who offer value-added services, the university has been able to offer some creative benefits to encourage alumni to continue using the portal after graduation. For example, the school is partnering with Experience to offer an online career services component to both students and alumni. Set to launch in July, the service will offer alumni to alumni and alumni to student job postings through the MyPlymouth portal.

Other services available to alumni include personal announcements and current university and alumni news. Services offered through the portal, Long said, "have been extremely well received."

Sites like Facebook have shown that students have a strong interest in social networking, Kochien said. Unlike with Facebook, however, a university site that connects its alumni can add the support of the institution and can provide a strong sense of community and continuity. "If alumni are using the site for social networking, they are more likely to be engaged with the university in other ways, too," Kochien maintains.

Meanwhile, Plymouth State has continued to add new features and services to its portals--and to draw increasing alumni interest. It's not just the newest graduates who are intrigued by their free  e-mail account and use of the MyPlymouth portal. "The oldest alum that has communicated with us using their alumni e-mail account," Long said, "graduated in 1937."

About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at lbriggs@lindabriggs.com.

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