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Yesterday I came across a seemingly innocuous article on philanthropy in higher education in the Washington Post. Unfortunately, the more I thought about it, the more I began to think that the piece was describing the convergence of some of the worst trends in colleges and universities today.

It's not exactly news that schools have started asking graduating seniors to donate money to show their support for their soon-to-be alma mater, and that they have started to emphasize "participation rates" over the size of the gifts. I graduated 14 years ago and this was already the trend. What the Post article does is show how this is connected to the school's U.S. News ranking.

Such campaigns have long been a way, in the college's view, to train students to become financially supportive alumni. But now they have an even more interesting rationale. According to the Post, George Washington University's senior giving campaign this year included a list of five reasons to give a senior gift, with the No. 1 reason being this: “Give because any gift, regardless of size, counts as alumni participation and elevates GW’s rankings in publications like U.S. News and World Report, raising the value of our degrees.”

So once again we have a situation where U.S. News is driving a college's priorities, with the school's implicit support for the idea that a U.S. News ranking can actually "raise the value of a degree." There will be those who will say that GW and other schools are simply acknowledging reality. But what is the message here? At the end of four years of a very expensive undergraduate education, which was supposed to broaden your mind and prepare you for a career, the ultimate value of your degree will be determined by . . . a news magazine?

So aside from the overwhelming focus on fundraising and the obsession with U.S. News, the article also mentioned one other trend that I found mildly depressing. "The concept of a class donating an item such as a park bench or a tree is nearly a thing of the past. Schools are asking for cash instead." Again, you could argue that this is simply the school administrators being realistic. Every school could use some more money.

But cold hard cash just doesn't have the charm of a park bench or a tree. Those types of gifts were meant to be lasting, tangible tributes. They were supposed to signal the passing of the torch from one class to the next, the interconnectedness of the school's generations, the idea that they were all supposed to have a similar experience. But now schools are so concerned with offering an education for the next generation, for the jobs of the future, that they have all but given up on the idea that there is an experience students had 50 years ago that is worth preserving for kids today.

2 thoughts on “Alumni giving: Cold, hard cash preferred”

  1. Martin Wooster says:

    I received my annual call from Beloit College asking me to give unrestricted gifts to their annual fund. One of the lines in the script the students read is, “It’s important that you give even a little bit because it helps us in the U.S. NEWS rankings.”

    I can’t think of a less persuasive reason to give than helping Beloit maintain its standing in the U.S. NEWS rankings!

  2. JAS says:

    Graduating seniors better be media savvy enough to know that they came to GW and paid its very high tuition because USNWR convinced them that their degrees would have exceptional value. It’s a self-perpetuating myth and once you buy into the myth, you can never stop paying for it.

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