Sunday, November 16, 2014

Recruiting Donors

I’ve given the New York TImes’ education coverage a hard time over the years, mostly because it’s so provincial.  But once in a while, it gets one mostly right.  This weekend’s story about donors to LaGuardia Community College wasn’t perfect, but it got the big picture right.  And it put that picture in a venue in which the donor class might actually see it.  Now we just have to do something with it.

Briefly, the Times pointed out that although community colleges enroll more students than any other sector of higher education, they receive far less philanthropic support than any of their non-profit peers.  (For-profits don’t receive philanthropy at all, for obvious reasons.)  The article even notes that charter schools receive almost twice as much philanthropic support as community colleges, even though community colleges have four times as many students.  The president of LaGuardia, Gail Mellow -- of whom I am a fan -- sends handwritten thank-you notes to anyone who donates $500 or more.  At most four-year colleges of similar size, that would be unthinkable.

Community colleges have struggled, comparatively, with donors for a host of reasons.  One is age; the average community college in America was founded in the 1960’s, and the first classes were often quite small.  They simply don’t have the length of history of an Ivy.  Another is the class background of the student body.  When you’re climbing out of the lower working class and making your way to a middle class job, you typically aren’t in a position to make five-figure donations to your alma mater.  Open-door admissions policies mean that there’s no competitive advantage for your kid if you’re a donor; the kid gets in whether you donate or not.  (Selective institutions aren’t shy about implying that donations grease the wheels.)  And many community colleges simply didn’t see it as part of their missions or identities until several decades had passed, by which point many of the first cohorts of graduates -- the ones most senior in their fields, and likely the wealthiest -- had dispersed around the country.  Reconstructing records is much harder than maintaining them.

I was disappointed, though, to see the Times publish as fact the contestable statement that “When students from a community college ascend to the affluent classes, they tend to feel a stronger affinity to the institutions that eventually graduate them than to the places where, often, they had no option but to begin.”  Maybe yes, maybe no.  At the first CASE conference on community college development a few years ago, Lisa Skari presented research from her dissertation suggesting that isn’t true.  She found that what looked like indifference was often a function of not being asked.  That rang true for me; I’ve certainly seen successful alumni show loyalty to where they started.  Skari’s findings give cause for hope; the Times’ assumption suggests fatalism.  I’ll side with Skari.

To the extent that philanthropy can go beyond alumni, though, it’s worth wondering why community colleges have been comparatively neglected. I wonder if part of the reason is the no-frills aesthetic that the sector as a whole favors.  Most cc’s don’t have high-profile athletics, for example, and they’ve generally opted out of the amenities arms race.  (At HCC, for example, we don’t have a football team, a climbing wall, or a lazy river.)  Most don’t have a homecoming weekend.  Community colleges are comfortable speaking the language of need, but many donors prefer to be part of something glamorous.  The sector as a whole has not made a point of trying to be glamorous.  It’s likelier to conjure images of workforce development programs and developmental writing than of semesters abroad in Italy.  But that’s sort of the point.

Wise and worldly readers, do you have any thoughts on ways that community colleges could become more effective players in the philanthropic world?