Why Are Individual Donations to Universities Declining?

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According to the Council for Aid to Education’s annual Voluntary Support of Education survey, U.S. colleges and universities received more donations in 2016 than in 2015. But what the report also revealed was that it was the smallest increase in donations since 2010, and that individual gifts have dropped off sharply—by eight and a half percent.

Universities of all sizes depend on bequests. This is especially true of small private colleges, which feel the loss of funds the most acutely. Just this week, St. Joseph’s College, a small Catholic college in Indiana, announced that it would be closing its doors after 126 years. In 2015, Moody’s predicted that by 2017 the number of small private college closures would triple to 15 a year.

So, what does it mean that individual donations have gone down so much? It could simply be an indication of economic hard times. People are tightening their belts and trying to cut down on spending. But I can’t help but feel like it’s something else.

There seems to be a changing relationship between individuals and their alma maters. America has a long history of individual donations to our colleges and universities. It’s practically a part of our culture, something we inherited from England, no doubt. Giving a donation is a gesture of affection for the place from which you graduated.

It’s a way of indicating that you believe in the educational standard of that institution. But it’s also a way to show how much your four years there meant in the development of your life and career and in forging life-long friendships. That’s why homecoming weekend is always well attended by alums from their 20s to their 80s.

It’s also a way to support diversity in higher education, in the truest sense of the word. It allows for the existence of colleges with differing missions, outlooks, values, and priorities.

But as universities and colleges, especially the larger state schools, start to look more like an extension of high school, it changes how individuals view them. Students and alumni begin to see them less as beloved schools that they were honored to attend, and more like a public utility. Something they can take or leave. Or as an extra four years of mandatory school tacked onto their sentence.

This is the case in France, where universities are state-run and tuition-free. Several years ago, when I casually mentioned to a friend in France that alumni in America often donate money to their alma mater, she could not believe it. Why, she wondered, would anyone want to give money to a university after they graduated? The idea of loyalty or nostalgia for one’s university was utterly foreign to her.

This, I fear, could be where we are headed as Bernie Sanders’ idea of tuition-free college gains popularity in the increasingly progressive Democratic party—toward a standardized, institutionalized, extension of high school.

Let’s hope that this year’s nosedive in individual donations is just a hiccup and not a trend.

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