A recent New York Times article by Ron Lieber asked whether alumni will give to colleges and universities this year, particularly if the institutions have mega-endowments. As Lieber put it:
Against the real likelihood of financial doom for so many people, it feels almost unseemly to consider a donation to a college or university. Surely there must be a food bank or job retraining program that is more deserving.
If past experience is any guide, don’t expect the food banks and job retraining programs to win out. One persistent trend in philanthropy is that groups providing social services tend to receive a smaller slice of the charitable dollar than both educational and arts organizations. Perhaps this year the needy are so salient that these patterns will shift a bit, but old giving habits die hard.
Lieber writes that for him, debt is the most persuasive reason for continuing to give to his alma mater; his education was made possible by generous scholarship support. Almost every college student has this sort of debt, because at most places not even full tuition covers the total cost of an education. Most alums are at least vaguely aware of this and, for some, it may provide an adequate reason to give.
But I wonder how long the notion of a deferred debt will continue to have practical or rhetorical force. With tuition rising at a rate that outpaces inflation and students and their families feeling increasingly strapped, tomorrow’s alums may conclude that even if tuition didn’t cover the cost of their education, it should have. The gap between what higher education costs and what students actually pay may soon be seen as more symbolic of the runaway costs of higher education than of an institution’s generosity towards its students.