Why alumni donations to Yale and other US colleges are hitting a new low

No love for those bright college years?
No love for those bright college years?
Image: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
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Some two decades years ago, when asked to give to their alma mater, an enthusiastic 50% of Yale graduates opened their wallets. Last year, roughly 33% did, despite steady increases in university solicitation.

Alumni donations are now at their lowest levels in two decades, according to Yale’s Office of Institutional Research. Why? Administrators aren’t sure, but Yale’s president Peter Salovey blames ”trends in society today that probably work against participation,” according to the Yale Daily News this week.

The problem isn’t limited to Yale. For years, colleges and universities across the US have seen their alumni giving rates decline. One reason is that college graduates face a growing slew of philanthropic options: There are more charities, religious institutions, social groups, and Kickstarter campaigns than one can count, and it’s hard to choose where to put your (finite amount of) money. Schools, especially elite schools with big endowments, can seem less appealing than social justice nonprofits or tech innovations.

There’s another possible explanation: College solicitation efforts may be getting totally outdated.  A 2014 report from Dan Allenby, founder of the Annual Giving Network and an assistant vice president of annual giving at Boston University, notes that schools still use terminology like “giving back” when most young alums don’t actually feel indebted to their schools. Considering the record level of college debt in the country, “how can we expect alumni to ‘give back’ when they haven’t finished paying the original bill?” Allenby asks.

Given that most graduates nowadays also communicate through social media rather than alumni channels, it may not be surprising that many feel more disconnected from their schools than their parents did. Recent social turmoil on college campuses has only added to the feeling of institutional alienation.

To snag those precious alumni donations in the future, schools will have to get a lot more persuasive. That’s not to say they’re exactly struggling for cash, though: Thanks to mega-donations from rich individual donors, American universities still netted a record $40 billion in 2015.