University lags in alumni donations

By Bourree Lam

As spring quarter comes to an end, the class of 2005 will move from being students of the University to alumni. They will take on new responsibilities to the University: instead of papers or problem sets, they face the task of donating back to their alma mater.

Alumni donation is a big concern of any institution. The University of Chicago’s current alumni giving rate is 29 percent, which ranks it 27th among universities in the most recent U.S. News and World Report college rankings. Princeton University leads with a 60 percent giving rate. “Alumni giving is an institutional priority, often called ‘job one’ by the President and trustees,” said Mia Miller, associate director of annual giving at Princeton University, about their success in alumni donation efforts.

The U of C’s relatively low rate among peer academic institutions has raised concern particular in recent years, with the number of donors in decline, falling from 12,202 in 1994 to 9,426 in 2004.

So why is alumni giving so low?

“I don’t think anyone is certain about the cause of the decline in donors since 1994. It is consistent with a national trend,” said John Boyer, dean of the College. Competition for charitable dollars has been increasing across the nation in recent years, slowing down charitable contributions to U.S. colleges and universities.

“Since 2001 we have reversed the trend of declining donors,” Boyer said. “We are not yet back to the 1994 level of donors.” Among graduating students, complaints of inadequate financial aid weigh in on the issue of the sparse level of donation, while others attribute this more simply to a lack of tradition in alumni donating.

Alumni donation at the U of C has been facing a major problem: The youngest and most recent alumni are not giving back. “Graduates of the College since 1994 make up 25 percent of all College alumni, but only 14 percent of all College donors are young alumni,” said Karyn Ullman, assistant director of Young Alumni Giving. These statistics have not gone unnoticed by the University.

The development office, in February 2005, launched a campaign to encourage young alumni to give back that suggests that raising overall alumni donation could improve the University’s ranking in the U.S. News and World Report college rankings. The development office has set a goal of receiving 1,291 gifts from recent College graduates by June 30, as reaching this number could increase Chicago’s total alumni participation by one percent.

The postcards and e-mails of this campaign direct alumni to where classes from 1995 are competing in an internet race to give. This new way of communicating the responsibility of giving puts emphasis on the U.S. News college rankings. Five percent of the U.S. News and World Report rankings is alumni donation, hence high donation rate could translate into higher rankings overall. This raises the question of how important rankings are to the University, its students and alumni.

“Many of our alumni do not put much stock in the U.S. News and World Report rankings,” said Ullman. However, she said that rankings do matter when it comes to finding jobs or graduate school admissions.

Many graduating students think that rankings do not reflect the full value of a U of C education, while others think rankings should be improved. “We are the school’s investment and the school is our investment. This said, rankings do matter,” said Sonny Lee, who added that he thinks that money is needed to maintain “U of C standards.”

Others think that rankings should not be so important: “It is surprising that the University is overtly using the U.S. News rankings as an incentive for alumni to give back,” remarked fourth-year in the College Jeremy Guttman. “This will only make college rankings seem more important, even if everyone wants them to become less important.”

Whether the rankings should be important to alumni, students, and the University is a complex question. “In one sense we don’t believe in them,” said Boyer. “That is, we do not think that the excellence of our students, our faculty, our curriculum, and our overall educational enterprise are accurately reflected in the rankings.”

The University does not deny that rankings are often influential. “The rankings are out there, on the magazine rack in every grocery store in America and we would be foolish to ignore them,” said Boyer. “What we won’t do is lie to U.S. News or change what we do just for the sake of the rankings. However, if there are things we can do that are intrinsically good for the College and that also happen to improve our score—like increasing alumni giving rates—we ought to pursue them.”

Soliciting alumni donation is no easy job. Ali Apochert, a first-year in the College working at the Telefund call center has often experienced refusals to donate. “They usually say they can’t afford it, whether or not it’s true, but I’ve heard that the University is too liberal, that it’s too conservative, that people don’t like the Max Palevsky building, and that the University is personally responsible for the state of the nation because it gave Paul Wolfowitz a degree,” Apochert said.

Graduating fourth-years, busy trying to secure a job and paying off loans, say they are sometimes put off by the University’s request for them to donate more money. “How much can I really donate?” noted fourth-year Sayaka Suzuki. The importance of giving back is juxtaposed with real financial burdens for graduating students.

How do other schools do it?

Miller said that the small class size at Princeton, which has 3,000 volunteers working on donations, yielded a more personal connection between professors and students, “making their connection to the school that much stronger.”

Rankings aside, the Young Alumni Giving campaign is going well, its officers say. “We are currently at 1,079 gifts. I do expect to reach our goal of increasing alumni gifts to 1,291 by June 30,” Ullman said. Statistics show that one way to increase alumni donation is starting the tradition early.

“We have made real progress, and that is all the more reason to continue to focus on participation growth,” said Boyer.

As the year comes to an end, another graduating class will enter the pool of young alumni. Only time will tell whether our fundraising efforts will pay off, and whether giving back will become part of the U of C tradition.