Photo credit: Cerritos College Foundation

Photo credit: Cerritos College Foundation

While alumni have ramped up support for low-income students at affluent four-year universities across the past few years, a growing chorus of commentators have argued that their millions would have a far greater impact at community colleges, trade schools, and historically black universities. Woefully underfunded community colleges, for instance, serve almost half of all enrolled undergraduates. They also boost students’ economic mobility at a far higher rate compared to their elite four-year peers.

Recent news out of California provides an instructive case study of how a donor can have a big effect at a public community college. The LA Times reported that the estate of John B. Smith of Paso Robles, California gave Cerritos College’s woodworking program $2.3 million—its largest gift ever. The Cerritos College Foundation will establish the John B. Smith Scholarship Fund to benefit students enrolled in woodworking courses. Scholarships will be available starting later this year.

While this donation might not seem newsworthy in an era when colleges and universities routinely pull in eight- and nine-figure gifts, it offers insights into how the underdogs of higher ed are looking to up their game—and make their case. Carol Krumbach, the Executive Director of Cerritos College Foundation and Institutional Advancement, told me that she hopes the gift “will help make more alumni and more donors in general think hard about the powerful impact their gift will make on a community college versus giving to a university that already has a huge endowment.”

The Cerritos College Foundation was formed in 1979 and has awarded over $4 million in student scholarships and over $7 million to support college programs. Krumbach helps to oversee the foundation’s fundraising efforts, alumni relations, and community advancement functions. Having previously served as executive director of the Port Huron, Michigan-based St. Clair County Community College Foundation, she is deeply attuned to the challenges and opportunities facing community college fundraisers.

“You Can Actually See the Difference”

Equity-minded donors would find a lot to like about the Norwalk, California-based Cerritos College. Located about 20 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, it offers degrees and certificates in 87 areas of study. Two-thirds of the student body lives at or below the poverty line. Eighty-two percent receive financial aid and 70 percent attend part-time. It also outperforms affluent four-year institutions in terms of boosting graduates’ economic mobility.

According to the New York Times, the median family income of a student from Cerritos College is $41,100, and 9.3 percent come from the top 20 percent. About 3.3 percent of Cerritos students came from a poor family but became a rich adult. The median family income of a student at Johns Hopkins University, which received a $1.8 billion financial aid gift from Michael Bloomberg, is $177,300, and 72 percent of students come from the top 20 percent. About 2.2 percent of students at Johns Hopkins came from a poor family but became a rich adult.

In his extensive analysis of higher education and economic mobility, Harvard economics professor Raj Chetty found that not a single “elite institution” ranked among the top 300 institutions for promoting mobility. And yet the fundraising gap between elite schools and community colleges is widening. “To counterbalance the tide of giving to elite institutions,” writes Forbes’ Allison Dulin Salisbury, “billionaires like Bloomberg should look to the non-elite sector—places like City College and Cal State LA, and hundreds of others like them that promote economic mobility—which is the way to drive change at scale.”

Here’s what Salisbury means by “drive change at scale.” A vast majority of students at elite schools are already affluent. Mobility can only happen if they admit a massive number of poor kids. That is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Bloomberg’s billions, for instance, will enable Hopkins to raise its number of Pell Grant recipients from 15 percent to 20 percent by 2023. This comes out to roughly 66 students over five years.

Contrast this with Cerritos College, where approximately 13,000 of its 20,000 students live at or below the poverty line. “Two million dollars for us is transformative,” said president/superintendent Dr. Jose Fierro. “You can actually see the difference… it helps students who can’t pay the rent the next month to graduate.” “No disrespect to the Ivy League or other elite institutions,” Fierro tweeted, “but if you want your legacy to really matter, a community college bequest is the way to go.”

Gifts to such schools can bring rewards to donors, too. Earlier this year I spoke with musician, record producer, sculptor, and artist Herb Alpert. Alpert has given tens of millions of dollars to various organizations across the past 25 years. He told me that his $10.1 million donation to Los Angeles City College in 2016 generated more positive feedback than any of his previous gifts. “This was the biggest one,” he said. Alpert attributed the response to the fact that the gift “helps the average person. It helps people transition into a university. It was not a sexy gift, this was just helping the average Joe.”

Growing Demand for Vocational Skills

Support for community colleges and trade schools also makes a difference on the macroeconomic front in a nation that badly needs skilled workers. Today, a disproportionate amount of public funding—$150 billion and change—plus tens of billions in private donations flow to the roughly 20 percent of kids cycling through the four-year higher education system. Annual federal spending for the non-college vocational pathways, meanwhile, is a paltry $1 billion and private support is practically nonexistent. As a result, many industrial and technical fields are facing severe worker shortages. Looking ahead, writes The Atlantic’s Meg St-Esprit, “the manufacturing, infrastructure, and transportation fields are all expected to grow in the coming years—and many of those jobs likely won’t require a four-year degree.”

In response, the state of California launched a $200 million initiative in 2017 to encourage more students to earn a vocational certificate through community colleges instead of a bachelor’s degree. And while we’re seeing comparatively less momentum on the philanthropy front, there are some bright spots, like Eric Smidt, the funder behind the Harbor Freight Tools for Schools initiative, who has been working to close what Danny Corwin, the executive director of Harbor Freight Tools for Teachers calls the “stigma gap.” “The general assumption,” Corwin says, “seems to be that these jobs are dirty and undesirable, but tradespeople themselves report being really fulfilled by their work, and on top of that, they’re well-paid.”

Cerritos College has offered woodworking courses for more than four decades. The program emphasizes hands-on training and real-world experience. “The job market for woodworking is very strong with careers that range from cabinet makers, furniture finishers, machine operators, and craft woodworking artists,” said Reuben Foat, chairman of the college’s Woodworking Manufacturing Technologies department. “Students who complete the program generally are incredibly satisfied working within this meaningful and gratifying vocation.” 

Explaining the Disconnect

To recap: Community colleges disproportionately serve low-income students, boost economic mobility at a higher rate than their elite peers, and provide in-demand and often well-paying vocational skills. Yet these schools continue to lag behind their four-year counterparts on the fundraising front. Why? The two most obvious reasons are the fact that community colleges and trade schools lack a deep bench of affluent alumni and are playing catch-up in terms of building out the requisite fundraising architecture.

Krumbach talked about how these schools can help close the gap. For instance, she explained how community colleges define alumni in varied ways. Some colleges base it on degree attainment, others base it on having completed a certain number of credit hours, while others define an alum as anyone who completed a single course. Cerritos College chose the latter definition and it paid dividends with the Smith gift, Krumbach said. “Mr. Smith didn’t complete a degree or a significant amount of coursework with us, but by all reports he really enjoyed his woodworking courses here and Cerritos College had an impact on him, and decades later he remembered us when he was making his estate plans.”

John Smith was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, and graduated from North High School in Torrance, California in 1962. He worked as an engineering draftsman in the aerospace industry for ten years. He took woodworking courses at Cerritos College before moving to Paso Robles, California, where he lived at the time of his passing in 2015. He also donated his woodworking equipment, including a drill press and bandsaw, to the college.

A Lack of Fundraising Capacity

One challenge facing community colleges is their relative youth. “Many community colleges in California were founded in the 1950s and ‘60s, so it makes some sense that we’re just now starting to see more realized planned gifts from alumni,” Krumbach said. “Cerritos College was founded in 1955 and reached 10,000 students in 1965. Many of those students from the 1960s are now getting in their 70s and making their estate plans right now.”

Unfortunately, “we don’t have a lot of historical employment information or some of the other markers that would help us identify qualified donor prospects.” Krumbach contrasted this with a previous job at a private university that had computerized information on every alum back to the late 1800s. “That sort of robust database information is more elusive at community colleges,” she said.

Community college fundraising departments are also understaffed. “When I started working in community college development in the early 2000s,” she said, “it was pretty rare to come across a community college fundraising office with a staff of more than two (the executive director and an administrative assistant), and many of us wore lots of hats. I was not only the ED of the foundation but also the director of marketing and p.r. and community relations. Now, many community college foundations have grown to 4, 5, or 6 staff members, but (I think) it’s still a small percentage that have ten or more staff. And I haven’t come across many community college foundations with a dedicated staff member for planned giving.”

Building Out Alumni Relations

Being able to go after bequests has always been critical for higher ed institutions, but that’s even more true today. When community colleges are able to build out their infrastructure and invest in alumni relations, they are better positioned to tap into the greatest generational wealth transfer in history and also cultivate alumni in their prime earning years. The development of the Cerritos College Alumni Association provides an instructive case study along these lines.

“When I came to California from Michigan in 2005,” Krumbach said, “many of the Michigan community colleges already had alumni relations programs in place, but in general, formalized alumni relations programs seem to be a more recent development at California community colleges.”

Cerritos College launched its Cerritos College Alumni Association last year as part of the lead-up to a $12 million campaign to raise funds for scholarships and program support. “The foundation board and the college,” Krumbach said, “recognized that in order to position the foundation for success with major gifts, we needed someone to focus on building relationships with former students and on connecting the various smaller alumni relations’ efforts across the college.”

“‘Formalizing’ an alumni organization—as opposed to simply saying we offer some services and events for alumni—is a strategic initiative to get alumni to self-identify and stay connected with us,” Krumbach said. “And we know that if we’re really going to be successful with this initiative, we need to work closely with on-campus departments to identify and create points of connection based on alumni affinities (major, extra-curricular involvements, hometown, scholarships received).”

There is no fee to join the Alumni Association. Its director sends out a weekly e-mail newsletter, organizes networking events, works with campus departments on alumni initiatives, and manages alumni social media sites including Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. “Of course we’re creating alumni stories and profiles for the websites and for newsletters,” Krumbach said, “That’s often a great way to make an initial connection with successful alumni.”

The foundation’s website lists notable alumni like U.S. Representative Graciela Flores “Grace” Napolitano, actor John Corbett, and former NFL wide receiver Touraj Houshmandzadeh Jr.

A Holistic Approach

Connecting with alumni is one of the most elementary tasks of a campus fundraising operation. But it takes real resources—especially when schools are starting from scratch.

“One of our greatest challenges,” Krumbauch said, “is to build out our alumni database with not only current addresses and emails, but also with as much current employment information as possible. We are using multiple methods to do that—outside vendors, LinkedIn, information from academic departments and student clubs, and informal surveys of area businesses and community groups. I’m envious of university development staff who have a nice neat database to work with from day one.”

The college recently launched an Alumni Council that includes several alums who were active in student government and an alumni speaker series. The series’ first speaker was poet Jose Hernandez Diaz, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship recipient and Pushcart Prize nominee.

Lastly, the college’s Economic Development unit, which provides customized training for business and industry, falls within the foundation’s purview. This “win-win” arrangement, Krumbauch said, “creates a direct connection between the foundation and the businesses we’re working with for training; and as we identify more alumni in leadership roles with area businesses, offering training opportunities to those businesses is a great way to build that relationship.”

“We’re taking a very holistic approach to alumni relations,” Krumbauch said. “We know that building a robust database of former students with employment information, educational history, and volunteer affiliations will be a big asset across the college—it’ll be a big asset to career services in expanding internship opportunities, and to our academic programs for guest speakers and advisory group members—and in turn, those types of meaningful opportunities lead to engaged alumni, and engaged alumni are more likely to be donors and vocal supporters of the college.”

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