To give or not to give?

Young alumni may be reluctant to donate to universities where they felt like just a number

With alumni donations steadily drying up over the past decade, universities are struggling to keep up with young graduates who may not be as apt to give back to their alma maters as their parents or grandparents were.

The University of Alberta has seen their alumni donations fall by eight per cent since 2005, with only 13, 700 of 225, 000 living alumni donating to the university in 2010, the Edmonton Journal reported last week.

While the economic recession may be largely to blame for a drop in donations from alumni, one University of Alberta student told the Journal she didn’t think she’d donate to her university after completing her degree because she felt her school had treated her like a number for most of her university career.

“The University of Alberta needs a source of income. I understand that. But when they see me, they see me only for what I can do for them. Why would I give back to someone who treats me like that?” Jordan Ramsey, a student in her fifth year at the U of A, told the Journal.

In the United States, a study published in February by the Council for Aid to Education found alumni donations to colleges and universities has dropped from $8.4 billion to $7.1 billion between 2006 and 2010, with the average gift per alumnus dropping from $1195 to $1080.  “Alumni participation has been declining annually for many years, though, even when the economy was stronger,” the study states.

I’m well aware of how important alumni donations are to universities seeing costs steadily rising, but I can see where Ramsey is coming from. I’ve spent most of my three years at the University of Manitoba writing for my campus paper, The Manitoban, and I feel much more attached to the idea of being a writer for the paper than a student at the university. I’ve found it hard to feel attached to an institution packed with thousands of people where I receive little contact from instructors, administrators, and even fellow students. Once I do graduate, I’m not sure if I will give back to my university or not.

O’Neil Outar, the U of A’s chief advancement officer, told the Journal that he wants to start encouraging students to donate after they graduate while they’re still in university. Next year, he is planning to get faculties to try to start up a tradition more prominent in the U.S. of asking senior classes to make a donation to the university the year they graduate. The university is also trying to keep in touch with young alumni by using social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

However, if students really feel, like Ramsey, that their universities just see them as sources of income, that’s something universities should work to address before soliciting them for donations. Most young alumni don’t have much money to donate to anything soon after they graduate, so a Facebook message or invitation to an event from their university is probably not going to do much to make them reach for their checkbooks. But if they feel like they were more than just a number and look back on their university experience as something valuable, they might be more inclined to give back when they have some free capital.

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