Monday, July 09, 2007

Giving When It Hurts

I am an alumna of three good schools, my private high school, my baby-ivy undergraduate college, and a larger urban university. I only give to the the first two; the third one has never impressed me with its Development department, and I don't like the direction the school is taking.

I also tend to give to schools where I work; I gave twice to my last employer during the year I was there, and yes, this year my new university employer will be getting a small gift for the Annual Fund. It's part of my own ideology; I work here because I support the ideals of the institution, and I want to help perpetuate that.

Today, I found a few articles dealing with alumni giving, and I noticed three distinct points that I wanted to comment on. So bear with me if this piece is a little patchy.

1. The Boston Globe: Colleges fear debt puts damper on donations

The fund-raising appeals started even before Adam Minsky received his diploma from Boston University six weeks ago. The envelope not so subtly left on his plate at the senior breakfast. The tug on his heartstrings with a request to donate in honor of a favorite professor. E-mails asking the class of 2007 for a token $20.07.

Proud BU grad that he is, Minsky is immune to the message, thanks to his $40,000 in debt.

"I got a great deal with my financial aid, but I'm still paying tens of thousands of dollars," said the Orlando, Fla., native. "And now they want more money? I think it's just ludicrous."

I can completely identify with this story. I remember getting a call from my undergrad institution at 3 and 6 months after I graduated. My first response was, "you can have a gift when your degree gets me a job." My second response (after securing a job) was, "you can have a gift when the current president is gone." (Happily, that happened about eight months later. He was an idiot.)

So yes, colleges do need to think about hitting up students in this economy. Huge student loan debts paired with a poor job market for entry-level work is really going to hit alumni giving programs in the wallet. And then I came to this part of the article: why colleges are really worrying about alumni donations being down--

Beyond the payoff of getting alumni into the habit of donating early, colleges need their newer graduates for another reason: US News & World Report rankings. The percentage of alumni who contribute every year counts in the tabulations, while the amount they donate does not.

Oh yes! we should never forget the importance of the US News & World Rankings. I consider those to be the biggest sham of all the shams of the college market. I can't think of anything I hate more about the college admissions game--not the unfairness of people who can afford test prep, not the rip-offs of the Kaplan and Princeton Review systems, not the over-abundance of applications per student that unbalance the scale of chances for others... And now, we need to worry about taking more money from debt-ridden students to kiss the rear end of the US News & World Report rankings. This is not what I work in philanthropy for.

(Thankfully 80 sane, rational college presidents have agreed not to participate in the rankings this year. Let's hope this good sense is contagious.)

The Old College Try: Why do alumni give to universities? To get their kids in, of course.

Slate presents this analysis of a recent study by
Jonathan Meer of Stanford and Harvey S. Rosen of Princeton (full study results here).

Here's what Meer and Rosen find. Alumni with kids are 13 percentage points more likely than alumni without kids to give in any year. The tendency to give rises slowly—by three more percentage points total—through kids' early teens. At about age 14, as mom and dad see their kid's algebra and composition grades, they decide whether he or she will apply to the alma mater. If they decide against, then they need not give extra to grease his way in. But if the kid is legacy material, then the parents might feel a need to show some generosity to Anon U.

And, indeed, while giving declines after age 14 among parents of kids who do not go on to apply, giving rises between about 18 and 25 percentage points (above the level of the childless alums) for those whose kids do apply a few years later. The timing is certainly suggestive. Of course, it's possible that the kids who apply are from families who are more enthusiastic about the school, which would trigger both application and contributions. But if general enthusiasm for Anon U were the cause of both the decision to apply and contributions, then we'd expect the families with eventual applicants to start outgiving the families of the eventual nonapplicants even earlier, when their kids are young. And they do not.

There's more fuel for cynicism. In the spring of his or her senior year, the child gets either a thin rejection envelope or a fat acceptance envelope. Parents jilted by a rejection cease giving immediately. This isn't surprising. After all, who sends flowers after being dumped? But it does indicate that the courtship gifts weren't altruistic. For kids who are accepted, family giving continues to increase for a few more years, then by age 22 falls back to the giving level from alumni with young kids. The time pattern of dollar donations, as opposed to participation in giving overall, follows a similar arc. The authors estimate that half of giving by alumni with children is self-interested.

this sort of information simply rankles my inner philanthropist. I give to my alma maters (or two of them anyway), because I appreciate the education I got there, and I want my money to go to helping other students receive the same great education. (Side note: My dream gift would be to endow a free ride to my high school for a female student with "great potential"... but that's another essay.)

As part of the great admissions game, I am appalled that the thinking of giving is such. It's an unfair advantage for legacy kids, which I don't approve of in the first place. I'm firmly in favor of merit-- for achievement or aptitude. I think this really is the subject to be carried on later. In the meanwhile, I'm just going to wrap up by saying, Give with your best intentions, not with your own self-interest in mind, and be kind to your poor, impoverished alumni.

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