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We continue our excerpting from The Intelligent Donors' Guide. Most recently, we talked about defining your goals. Today we talk about the importance of "looking under the hood."

INTELLIGENT giving requires separating fact from fiction, reality from illusion. Most alumni view their alma maters through the rosy lens of nostalgia. You've heard the joke, "Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be." Well, your college may not be what it used to be, either. Enjoy the memories, but face reality. People don't invest in a company out of nostalgia. They don't buy Singer Sewing Company stock just because in their first job they worked as a seamstress. They don't buy General Motors stock because their first car was a Chevy.

Put aside your nostalgia and look at what’s happening on your campus now. You may still be true to the values you formed at Alma Mater U, but Alma Mater U may not be. Over the years, many institutions have sacrificed core educational standards in order to get warm bodies into classrooms. You need to decide if Alma Mater U is one of them.

You cannot direct your funds in the most effective way unless you look candidly at the college as it is today. Many alumni are shocked and amazed to learn what is happening on campus these days.

Even if your college has resisted compromising its values, remember that it is subject to the same pressures that have eroded academic integrity at other schools. You will want to contribute to programs that help the college maintain a standard of excellence.

If your college has veered off course, don't give up. These days, most colleges are a mix of good and bad, maintaining both strong and weak programs and professors. With guidance, donors and alumni can identify good programs and good professors at every institution. They can create "oases of excellence" with the potential to improve the whole institution. Below we will help you discover how to find and support such programs or create them yourself.

You would not buy a used car without looking under the hood--or at least reading the specs. You should also look under the hood of your college.

Here are some things you can look at:

*College Mission Statement. Is it coherent and consistent? Does it set valid educational goals? Or does it sound more like "blah, blah" or a plan for social engineering?

*Graduation Requirements. Do they reflect a serious conception of "what every educated person should know"? Are general education requirements met by a few comprehensive, well-planned, integrated courses or by a grab bag of dozens of unrelated courses? Can students meet requirements with alternatives that lack breadth and rigor? Our website, WhatWillTheyLearn.com, offers an excellent starting point for assessing your college's curriculum and graduation rates.

*Catalog and Departmental Websites. Look up the programs and departments for the fields with which you are most familiar. Are students being exposed to a range of ideas within those fields? Do the course descriptions look substantive and responsible? Or are they jargon-ridden, narrow, trivial, or tendentious? What are the major requirements? Does the faculty reflect quality and range? Always begin by looking at the catalog and departmental websites, but never stop there. Official course descriptions are often not updated for years and may not reflect what is actually being taught. You may even want to look at syllabi or other available course materials to get a clearer picture; increasingly professors are posting such materials online, and they provide vivid insights into the expectations and goals of the course.

*The American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s publication Inside Academe follows events and trends on campus. We can refer you to other organizations and publications, such as campus newspapers and student publications, that would be helpful. We can also assist you in finding course syllabi. Contact ACTA at 202.467.6787 or visit us at www.goacta.org.