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Published: Wednesday, 3/10/2010

Connecting with college

ON the surface, the declining popularity of yearbooks on American college campuses might appear to be no more than another stage in the evolution of how people gather and store important memories.

But it also suggests that the loyalty students once felt for their alma maters may be waning, a development that colleges are combating by forming virtual communities.

The yearbook has been part of college life in the United States since the 1806 publication of Profiles of Part of the Class Graduated at Yale College. From these humble beginnings, yearbooks grew into slick volumes that captured more than memories, often reflecting the social and political milieus in which they were produced.

But the face of the American college student is changing, especially on the campuses of public universities. College, once a place young people called home for four years, sharing experiences and developing lifelong relationships, is often viewed today as little more than a training ground for a better job.

College students today are more likely than their parents to spend a year or two at a community college to save money. They're often older and married, have children, attend part-time, or have full-time jobs. Online classes and satellite campuses are proliferating, resulting in some students spending little or no time on the main campus. And more foreign students attend U.S. colleges than ever before, many of them living outside the mainstream of campus life and returning to their homelands after graduation.

Squeezed by changing demographics, rising costs (a yearbook can cost more than $100), and the growth of social networking sites that allow students to create what are essentially instantaneous and intensely personal yearbooks, only about 1,000 colleges and universities still sell enough yearbooks to keep publishing. Ohio State University has one, the University of Toledo does not, and Bowling Green State University's annual has become a biannual magazine. Most of the yearbooks that survive do so on small, private, liberal arts campuses that are more likely to foster consciously a sense of community among students.

At the same time, public universities are increasingly turning to alumni in search of money to replace declining state support. So far, as the University of Toledo's successful $100 million fund-raising drive that ended two years ago attests, traditional graduates have proved to be a ready source of revenue. But will that be the case in 20 years, when calls for donations to this generation of students don't evoke shared memories?

Colleges already are reaching out to former students in new ways, establishing Facebook and Twitter pages, creating electronic versions of yearbooks and alumni magazines, and hosting virtual reunions to connect with 21st-century graduates on their own terms.

It just goes to show: There's more than one way to turn old-style Yale "boola boola" into modern fund-raising "moola moola."

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