It’s no secret that higher education has become more “corporate,” with the consequence of seeing students as customers and education as a consumer product. Nevertheless, alumni giving—even as it has waned in recent years—remains a crucial part of higher education revenue.
However much the university model is changing, institutional loyalty remains high. Clearly one of the reasons why alumni give so much to sports programs is because the loyalties run deep. Sports tap into the comparative, and therefore competitive, relationship that pertains among schools, and alumni are eager to help their teams stay at the top of the competition.
Why are these loyalties so deep and important? College education happens to us at what may be the most transformational time of our lives.
There’s little doubt that given the combination of emancipation from parents, the physical development of the brain, and the proximity to thousands of peers will yield a strong sense that the school has bent the twig. Upon graduation, a fair number of students will start down a career path that they likely could not have attained without their particular major. Other students will have had opened to them a world of travel and so-called “broadened horizons.” Still others will be exposed to thoughts and works of art that shape their character and their world in profound ways.
Students, in other words, are put on a search—call it purpose or meaning, or something more—that will play out the rest of their lives. College is like the neck of an hourglass, and so graduates often see their lives as having poured forth from those definitive four years.
This is good and healthy. But what of these loyalties from the perspective of philanthropy?
IS GIVING BACK ALL IT’S CRACKED UP TO BE?
The studies arguing that a completed college education significantly increases one’s lifetime earnings are pretty definitive, and colleges exploit this fact under the rubric of “giving back.” As a result, colleges and universities lean heavily on alumni giving—especially the most elite schools. The top 20 schools (one half of one percent) receive about 28% of all donations. The top 100 schools receive about 80%.
Given the sense of loyalty and the debt of gratitude, this is not surprising. But how sensible is it, all things considered?
Colleges are not static entities, and so the loyalties we feel may—and sometimes should—get strained. Your football team puts together a string of losing seasons and your commitment wanes. The school plummets down the rankings and suddenly donations tighten up. It loses its way missionally and donors no longer recognize it as the school that helped mold them into the persons they are.
This last example can be a harsh and troubling reality. Those who recall college fondly may well be dismayed by current trends, many of which emphasize not so much education but recast schools as “problem solvers” that create “social change.” This politicization of the school has two important consequences: first, it alienates many donors who do not agree with what constitutes “positive change” or which problems need solving; and, second, given the homogenizing effects of this approach, it broadens rather than narrows the competition that schools face.
REDIRECTING HIGHER EDUCATION GIVING
Distressing as this may be for alumni, it’s an opportunity for alumni donors. Disillusioned alumni can leverage their donations in different ways. Advancement personnel are often pinched between on-campus initiatives—of which many donors disapprove—and the financial demands of running a college.
Donors can and should apply additional pressure either through withholding funds or targeting their giving. They should silo the money, earmark it for programs, or (carefully) endow chairs. They should take every precaution to protect donor intent.
Donors should also consider working outside the college’s structures rather than inside them. There are models available for developing first-rate programs for students that also give those running the programs the freedom they need to do it well—without having someone else looking over their shoulders or strongarming the education they provide. Alumni donors should consider directing their philanthropy to these programs, confident that their gift will be used the way they want it to be used.
It’s not an easy thing to ask alumni to abandon their schools. The loyalties to one’s alma mater—the “neck in the hourglass”—run deep, and rightly so. But too many colleges and universities today are primary contributors to America’s most significant pathologies—income inequality, a corrupt elite class, the radicalization of our ruling class. Alumni donors—indeed, all donors interested in higher education—would be well-advised to think about where their money will do the most good (not to mention the least harm).
That will mean, in no small part, looking beyond the obvious place for your philanthropy, your alma mater. There are countless ways to support higher education—finding schools not contributing to those harmful pathologies or parallel institutions not tethered to university restrictions. There is much that donors can do for both higher education and our civil discourse by becoming a good deal more thoughtful and selective about their giving.
It is not unprecedented that alumni shift their giving to different schools to which they have no ties other than aligning themselves with the school’s mission. The most obvious example of this would be Hillsdale College, which has well-positioned itself as unique in higher education. As a result, it has seen a serious uptick in the size of its endowment. I regard this as a mixed but understandable development.
We want to avoid schools becoming echo chambers, merely a long line of politically distinct but homogenous entities. But we do want schools that refuse to participate in the harmful social and political trends overwhelming our campuses. The solution—for philanthropists, at least—is to make thoughtful gifts to higher education. Loyalties to one’s alma mater are to be applauded, but as these entities abandon anything recognizable as “education,” donors should look beyond their alma maters (or beyond simply cash gifts) to find a place that will accept their money and invest it well.