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College and University Donors Should Give, but with a Purpose

Investor's Business Daily
Dec 06, 2016 by Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill

This holiday season, mailboxes will once again be filled with year-end appeals for charitable donations.

American colleges and universities almost certainly will be among the biggest beneficiaries. Last year alone, they received a jaw-dropping $40.3 billion in donations — an amount greater than the GDPs of more than 100 countries.

Alumni donations accounted for more than a quarter of the total, topping $10.8 billion in 2015, according to the Council for Aid to Education.

Yet, all is not well in the academy. Alumni and parents are concerned about many campus trends. Since 1978, tuition and fees have increased at nearly five times the rate of the Consumer Price Index. These hefty bills subsidize troubling levels of waste, with the growth of administrative costs and salaries often far outstripping increases in support for instruction and student assistance.

Too many institutions have gutted standards, course offerings, and graduation requirements, replacing expectations of core knowledge with "whatever-you-want" curricula marked by boutique — and sometimes absurd — electives. Many students graduate with hollow degrees, saddled with a lifetime of debt, but without fundamental skills.

While donors give generously to maintain world-class academic offerings, their gifts may be re-purposed, perpetuating substandard programs and academic drift. For example, alumni and others donated more than $517 million to the Ivy League's University of Pennsylvania last year, enabling Penn to offer such indispensable courses as English 111.301, "Wasting time on the Internet."

Such trivial courses are offered on the vast majority of campuses and often satisfy graduation requirements. The University of Illinois–Springfield's course on "Game of Thrones," for example, fulfills the school's (weak) humanities requirement.

And Harvard, a fundraising juggernaut so well-endowed that critics have begun to question whether or not the university should still charge tuition, raked in more than $1 billion in private donations last year. But what does a Harvard degree represent?

According to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a Harvard student can graduate without ever learning a foreign language at the intermediate level or taking a single course in literature, American history, economics or mathematics.

More worrying still, free expression, due process, and intellectual diversity are under attack on campuses coast-to-coast. While well-meaning donors and alumni continue to keep the donation spigot wide open, even the most loyal alums are noting, with alarm, what is happening to their alma maters.

At the University of Missouri, for example, concerned alumni cut back their annual giving significantly in response to the school's unsatisfactory handling of campus unrest and its apparent nonchalance regarding the assistant professor who infamously called for "muscle" to physically evict student journalists from a protest site. The professor eventually lost her job, but not before alumni expressed their displeasure by donating less.

Still, there are glimmers of hope. Concerned alumni of Hamilton College in New York worked with an intellectually diverse group of students and faculty to launch the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization. Hamilton's administration refused to allow the program on campus, but organizers forged ahead anyway. They now work collaboratively off campus with students, alumni, and scholars to develop traditional liberal arts programming and vigorous discussion of ideas and issues.

In spite of the unsettling trends and incidents, most alumni have fond memories of their college years and still want to support and enrich the intellectual lives of students at their alma maters. Indeed, private support for higher education has been an engine of progress in this country, and donors should continue to give — but not unconditionally.

Unrestricted giving — at a time when higher education desperately needs focus and renewal — is a formula for stagnation. Through the power of the purse, donors have the means and opportunity to shape institutional behavior by supporting activities, programs, and faculty positions that maintain high standards and intellectual integrity. If such a program doesn't exist at a donor's alma mater, he or she might consider joining with other like-minded alumni to create one.

Colleges and universities, especially those without colossal endowments, depend on donor support. So give.

But give in such a way that you will help equip students with the essential knowledge and skills they need for the challenges of the modern workplace and the demands of engaged citizenship.

The Fund for Academic Renewal is a program of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a not-for-profit, tax-exempt organization as defined by Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. All contributions to FAR are fully tax-deductible to the maximum extent provided by law.