Do your newest alumni have email accounts or some other type of university account that remained active after they graduated? If data on active and inactive accounts is available to you, I suggest you have a look at it, because it can be indicative of affinity with the institution. Having an active account itself may not indicate affinity — but keeping it active might. The variables require some special handling in order to detect the association, though, which is what I’ll describe today.
What kind of data am I talking about? “Email for life” is a common example: Alumni either get to keep the email address they had when they were students, or are given alumni addresses. Normally it’s not a true email account with storage and so on, but rather an email forwarding service which allows graduate to keep a single, permanent address even as they move and change jobs. (It used to be a great idea, but uptake for email-for-life is not high these days — Gmail and other services serve the purpose. But some alumni like to have their address reflect the school they attended. An email address with a prominent college name looks better on a resume than @hotmail, after all.)
Besides email, an account might also allow former students to access an online community, retrieve academic transcripts, or update their personal information. Whatever the purpose of the account, the pattern is the same: Practically everyone in the most recent graduating class has an active account, but the proportion of accounts that are used and remain active declines steeply with every passing year.
I have a data set here as an example. This chart shows the percentage of alumni whose university account is still active, broken down by the year of graduation.
Overall, 30% of alumni who graduated in 2000 or later have an account coded as “still active.” You might expect that alumni who kept an active account would be more likely to be donors, but that’s not the case: The “inactive” alumni are the better donors, with a participation rate more than twice the rate of the “active” alumni.
Why is that? Look again at the chart above. From a high of 98.3% for the class of 2011 (near-total penetration), the ‘active’ percentage rapidly declines to under 3% for alumni who are ten years out. In its current form, the “active account” variable is merely a proxy for “year of graduation.” Older graduates (even only slightly older) are more likely to have a history of giving — therefore the alumni with lapsed accounts appear to be better donors.
I was reluctant to abandon this variable before seeing if I could transform it somehow. What if I gave each alum a score based on how many years since graduation his or her account has stayed active? In my stats software (Data Desk), I created a new derived variable (let’s call it ‘Active Score’), which was calculated this way:
- If the account is active, then ‘Active Score’ is equal to 2011 minus Class Year.
- Otherwise, ‘Active Score’ is equal to zero.
Therefore, this year’s grads will be zero whether their account is active or not. Given that nearly 100% of them have an active account, one can assume that no actual choice was being exercised — their account is merely active by default. It’s the persistence of activity that matters here. In my data set, ‘Active Score’ ranges from zero to 11 years. As I had hoped, the score seems to have an association with participation in the Annual Fund. At the high end, alumni with the longest-active accounts had a very high participation rate (for young alums) of 25%:
My new variable could still be a proxy for Class Year — only an alum who graduated more than 10 years ago could have a score of 11 — but my early testing indicates this variable offers some explanatory value even when I control for the number of years since graduation. It makes sense to me that having a still-active account at eight years out is more meaningful than a still-active account at five years out, which in turn is more meaningful than an active account held by someone who just graduated and may not even know they still have any account.
A final note: This post follows a previous one called Young alumni are a whole different animal, which was about building models dedicated to predicting young-alumni giving. Variables such as the one I’m talking about today are useful only for models built to predict giving by young alumni, not all alumni. It makes no sense to create a score for alumni who never had an account at all. None of them will be active and, because they are older, an active account will be a negative predictor in any model built on an all-ages sample of alumni.