The College Donor Digest

Philanthropy and Community Colleges

August 30, 2019 | Rebecca Richards

Whether your first day of college was five or fifty years ago, it is hard to forget the excitement and trepidation of stepping into your future. This rite of passage is starting to wane as many prospective students of the upcoming generation are deciding against going to a traditional, four-year college. According to a recent study by TD Ameritrade, one in five of Americans aged 15-28 say they might not pursue higher education. A significant number are considering more affordable alternatives to the typical college experience. The level of education does not seem worth the level of debt. More than ever, financial constraints are dictating major decisions about undergraduate education.

As the student landscape changes, philanthropy is following suit and non-traditional colleges are seeing an increase in donations. In 2009, only one major gift of $2.5 million was given to a community college, according to an article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy. In 2018, the total of major gifts given to community colleges was $53.1 million. While traditional universities still receive a vast majority of philanthropic gifts, this is a significant increase for the community college system.  Why this change? Community colleges seem like the answer to many of the cultural concerns with traditional higher education. The tuition rates are lower, the training is more specific to the workforce and the time investment is significantly lower than a four year bachelor’s degree.

The increased interest in community colleges offers a unique opportunity for philanthropists. Community colleges already address the immediate cultural concern with workforce training. A liberal arts education can be compatible with occupation-centered education. Targeted giving to community colleges could help establish programs that introduce students from a variety of backgrounds to the liberal arts in an accessible way. The Chronicle of Philanthropy highlights one program at Arapahoe Community College in Colorado that will help students interested in the workforce and in higher education to achieve their respective goals. Once implemented, the program schedules classes so that students are able to work while pursuing an education. The program will serve both those seeking a quick occupational licensing degree as well as those looking to transfer to a state college.

While developing liberal arts programs in a predominantly workforce centered campus will have its own set of challenges, there is also great potential. Since the typical community college student is older, dialogue on campuses could be more robust and diverse. The diverse backgrounds of students leads naturally to intellectual and political diversity. With a wider range of age and life experience, community college students might have a more grounded approach to the debate of great ideas. After all, the great books are considered great because they have as much relevance to the philosopher as to the plumber.

Through targeted giving, donors have the ability to influence universities. Rather than let higher education succumb to tuition increases and lackluster curriculum, consider encouraging colleges that are already working hard to keep costs low and preparing their students for life during and after higher education. Despite the current increase in giving to community colleges, they remain underfunded and the effect of a major gift could be much farther reaching than the same gift to a typical university. As students go back to school this fall or begin for the very first time, a targeted donation can influence the kind of education they receive at the level they can afford.

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