A Chronicle of Higher Education reporter this week published his description of a freshman seminar, lead by a tenured professor of education at the University of Richmond, where the professor allowed to go uncorrected students’ misconception that a “volunteer army”—truly an essential notion in American democracy—meant that soldiers were unpaid. Meanwhile, one of her assignments required six eleven-line paragraphs! What could be the effect of specifying eleven-line paragraphs? Not to ready freshmen for more advanced college work or to excite them about a greater world of ideas but to convince them that college is about checking off a bunch of requirements in order to get a diploma. The reporter had visited three University of Richmond freshman seminars six times over the course of semester and was reporting on the varying quality of freshman seminars—happily, he witnessed some instruction much better than the education professor’s (the article is behind the Chronicle’s paywall).

Why is this interesting to philanthropists? Because, in this era of fiscal challenge, philanthropists will be more important than ever in funding college education—and high on many colleges’ “wish lists” is funding for freshman seminars.

The freshman seminar was introduced as a regular feature of the college experience relatively recently in U.S. higher education—small seminars had traditionally been “capstone” experiences for juniors and seniors who were judged ready to study specialized topics under the close guidance of a faculty member.

However, in the last decades, freshman seminars have become a regular part of the college experience—starting at the most elite universities and spreading to other selective liberal arts colleges and research universities. Harvard’s freshman seminar program began in 1959 (a sign of the times: Harvard’s initial program was limited to 160 students—124 Harvard men and 36 Radcliffe women). In the last two decades, freshman seminars have become common at selective colleges: for example, The College of William & Mary inaugurated its freshman seminar program in 1993; UCLA introduced freshman seminars in 2001; and Brown University began its “first-year seminars” in 2002.

Freshman seminars became a regular offering at these college for a number of reasons—they entice high schools seniors to accept offers of admission by holding out the chance to study on close terms with a faculty member in freshman year; they are opportunities to provide mentoring to students arriving from high school with weaker study skills than past generations of students; and they boost retention of students from freshman to sophomore year.

I’ve taught many freshman seminars—including in William & Mary’s freshman seminar program—and it is genuinely exciting to see the intellectual growth that can take place over a semester. They are a valuable part of the liberal arts college experience.

But freshman seminars are very, very expensive: just consider that it costs ten times as much in faculty instructional effort to have ten professors each lead a 15-student seminar than for one professor to lead a lecture class of 150 students. And, freshman seminars are all the more expensive because colleges prefer to have tenured or tenure-track faculty (with expensive salaries and benefits) lead these seminars rather than turn to the adjunct faculty (paid piecemeal by the course) even better colleges so often use to teach other classes.

That’s why so many colleges rely on philanthropists to fund these seminars, especially these days when colleges are struggling for resources. The Harvard program began thanks to a philanthropist’s gift; since the late 1990s, Princeton University has encouraged philanthropists to endow a freshman seminar; The College of William & Mary recently announced a major, $10 million gift to fund its freshman seminar program. Freshman seminars are attractive to alumni donors because alumni have warm memories of the times when they were able to get to know a professor.

This week’s Chronicle of Higher Education report on freshman seminars is a cautionary tale about freshman seminars—and a chance to think about what requirements a thoughtful philanthropist would make of a college ensure his or her funding of freshmen seminars truly enhanced undergraduates’ introduction to their college.