Alumni Participation in Decline
The economic downturn has affected higher education in many ways: State dollars are disappearing, budgets are tight, student enrollment is up and alumni participation is down. The Council for Aid to Education (CAE) tracks alumni participation in their annual Voluntary Support of Education (VSE) survey. In 2008, the organization reported that U.S. colleges and universities received a record high of $31.6 billion in alumni gifts in 2008. But in 2009, the VSE showed that institutions had experienced an 11.9% drop in giving, the steepest decline in CAE's history.
Most colleges and universities weren't surprised to hear the news. The survey covered July 1, 2008 through June 30, 2009, a period when fundraisers reported running into resistance from donors who had either experienced significant financial losses or feared that they would soon. The struggling economy was making everyone skittish about letting go of their money.
The drop wasn't just due to smaller dollar amounts. The size of the average alumni gift was down, but so was overall alumni participation. 'Alumni participation' measures the number of donations a school receives, whether they're for $5 or $5,000. This number is viewed as an indicator that alumni are happy with their alma mater, which implies that the school offers both a good education and a good student experience. Alumni participation rates attract better students and faculty, are used to solicit new donors and are factored into the widely followed U.S. News & World Report college rankings.
Although the 2009 drop in alumni giving can be primarily attributed to the recession, participation rates have been declining for several years. Education experts point to a number of non-economic reasons. Contributions from donor-advised funds and family foundations, which don't count as alumni gifts, have become much more popular. Furthermore, colleges and universities are facing more challenges from other popular charitable causes.
A recent survey by the Engagement Strategies Group (ESG) points to weak alumni relationships as another possible cause for the decline in alumni participation. They found that young alumni feel that colleges don't need their money, and older alumni feel disconnected from their alma mater.
Institutions Fail to Convey the Value of Alumni Relationships
In February and March of this year, ESG conducted online interviews with 700 alumni of undergraduate postsecondary institutions in the U.S. The participants included a nationally representative sample of alumni of American colleges and universities, as well as a representative sample of alumni from the top 100 'National Universities' according to the U.S. News rankings. Researchers separated them into four age categories: Under 35 years old, 35-49, 50-64 and 65 or older. Called the 'Mood of Alumni 2010,' the survey explores alumni giving behavior, how they perceive their alma mater and what perceptions act as barriers to giving.
One of the main patterns that emerged from the 'Mood of Alumni' report is a growing disconnect between institutions and their alumni. In one of the questions, participants were asked to evaluate their alma mater on several key characteristics. Most respondents rated their institutions very highly on features such as 'My alma mater is a world class institution' or 'My alma has an excellent faculty.' However, all age groups gave very low grades on the characteristic 'My alma mater values its relationship with alumni by keeping them closely connected.'
In general, the strength of the alumni-institution connection wanes over time, with a small resurgence in alumni over the age of 65 that may be due to life changes. The youngest group feels the closest, with 47% of those under age 35 reported feeling 'strongly connected' to their alma mater. Yet even this age category tends to feel as though that connection isn't valued by the institution. If they don't feel their relationship is valued, it's no wonder alumni are less likely to donate. Cindy Cox Roman, co-founder of ESG, notes that 'Alma mater is Latin for 'nurturing mother,' but some alumni instead view their college or university as an 'abandoning mother' once their on-campus experience is over.'
Lack of appreciation isn't the only reason that young alumni are disinclined to give. Researchers at ESG asked survey participants whether each of 12 potential issues represented a major, minor or no barrier in giving to their alma mater. Eighty percent of alumni under 35, who have seen the worst of a steady trend of tuition hikes, listed 'I feel that I've paid enough already for tuition' as the biggest factor in their reluctance to donate. Over half also felt that 'I don't think the school really needs the money' and 'I haven't been given a good enough reason to give' were major factors. Problems with alumni connections and transparency also came up - 46% reported feeling like their donations go into a 'black hole.'
Ms. Roman notes that, for schools to be successful, they must reconsider how they're earning the 'financial allegiance' of young donors. Although those under 35 don't always give as much as older alumni, they are more likely to give something. ESG researchers found that, as a group, only those under 35 reported a net higher allocation of their 2009 giving to their alma mater in 2009 than in previous years. All other age groups netted a somewhat lower percentage. Possibly as a result, alumni under 35 also allocated a larger proportion (mean 20%) of their 2009 giving budget to their alma mater, as opposed to other schools or charitable organizations.
Reaching out to young graduates doesn't just boost alumni participation rates. Nurturing connections with young grads can also set up long-term donor relationships between schools and their alumni. ESG co-founder Sandra Radoff adds, 'Schools that recognize the importance of young alumni as budding philanthropists are smartly taking a long-term view.'
The 'Mood of Alumni 2010' report makes it clear that if schools want to improve their flagging alumni participation rates, they need to reinvigorate their alumni connections. This will mean finding new ways to connect with graduates and make them feel valued. And as the differences between young, middle and older alumni show, those efforts will have to be tailored to different alumni groups. Ms. Roman notes, 'Schools that customize their alumni engagement strategies based on age and generation hold the key to a life-long connection.'
Top 10 Schools Based on Alumni Participation
The following list comes from the Council for Aid to Education's 2009 VSE. Participation rates are calculated by dividing the number of alumni who donated to the institution by the total number of alumni in the school's database. As a result, schools with small databases may have inflated participation rates.
|1.||Rockefeller University, NY||92.9%|
|2.||Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, MA||87.6%|
|3.||Philips Theological Seminary, OK||59.5%|
|4.||Middlebury College, VT||58.2%|
|5.||Amherst College, MA||54.0%|
|6.||Elmira College, NY||49.9%|
|7.||Williams College, MA||49.4%|
|8.||Hamilton College, NY||48.4%|
|9.||Carleton College, MN||47.9%|
|10.||College of the Holy Cross, MA||46.7%|