Why Alumni Trust in Higher Education Is Failing—and What We Can Do About It

Alumni giving rates are down nationwide, and a majority of Americans say that colleges and universities put their own interests above their students'. Things aren't looking great for fundraising and alumni relations in higher education.

We all have our own assumptions about why it's happening. It's obvious to us, common sense, even if there isn't always the research to back it up. But in the absence of data, there's little we're empowered to do about it.

Fortunately for us, there is some research as to why alumni trust in their alma maters is failing. In this post, we'll break that research down into five action items:


Alumni are more distrustful than ever that their alma maters will spend their donations as promised. Only 40% say they have high trust in their alma mater to do so. Colleges and universities can combat that distrust by being more open about where they spend their money and sharing stories about how donors change the lives of students every day.

Nonprofits already have the tools they need to track how they spend the donations they receive. Donors like to know where and how their gifts have an impact, and they get angry when they feel misled. Nobody needs to be reminded about the backlash that the Red Cross faced (and continues to face) for squandering half a billion dollars in Haiti.

People love nonprofits like DonorsChoose.org, which lets you donate directly to classrooms in need of resources, because they get to choose how their money is used. Watsi employs the same model but for healthcare for the needy in developing countries. There is satisfaction in knowing exactly where your money is going.

Fighting for a cause, not just an institution

A 2009 study interviewed alumni and identified three reasons why they don't give to their alma maters:

  • They view college as a commodity not a charity
  • They think their college does not need money
  • They do not think their contribution would be useful

All this is to say, they think of their alma maters first as institutions rather than causes. People, millennials in particular, prefer to give money to causes rather than to stuffy institutions. Why would you give money to an institution with millions, tens of millions, or hundreds of millions of dollars in its endowment when it appears to be thriving without your $25 contribution?

Studies, like the 2015 Millennial Impact Report, show people are far more likely to give to causes than to institutions. Colleges and universities should adapt by focusing their conversations with their donors on the causes they serve so alumni feel they are giving directly to students rather than to a bureaucracy.

Switchboard Vice President Andy Shaindlin says that institutions should go even further than that. "Sounding like a cause does not make you a cause. And donors know this," he wrote on his blog in 2015. Andy argues it will take a deeper shift in institutional priorities for colleges and universities to be recognized as causes, namely:

  • a change in the student experience itself,
  • a change in the stated purpose of alumni organizations, and
  • a change in the way universities align their work with that of other world-changing organizations.

While changing the direction of an institution is a monumental and sometimes Sisyphean task, we can work to reorient our teams toward cause-based goals rather than self-serving ones.

Being sensitive about how and when we ask

We know asking recent graduates for donations might not have the best optics, but we also know we have to get alumni used to giving early if we want to create a culture of philanthropy at our institutions.

In our efforts to acclimate alumni to being asked to give, however, we often missed the mark. When we do, responses like this blog post are common: "Dear Alma Mater: No, I Am Not Giving You More Money, Go To Hell."

We have to be sensitive about when we ask our alumni for money. When you're laden with student debt, it's hard to like being asked to give more money to the institution you just paid tens of thousands of dollars.

The best time for our first ask is before they leave campus and after they understand why their contribution is important. Hamilton College, for example, goes to great lengths to educate its students about the importance of giving back to the college and runs a senior class gift campaign. Over 90% of Hamilton's seniors contribute to the senior gift every year, and that high rate of giving is also reflected in consistently high rates of alumni giving for years after they graduate.

Career success

Career outcomes not only affect alumni's opinion of their alma maters, but also their capacity to give back.

The higher their post-graduation income, the more satisfied alumni are with their education. Many alumni cite their personal finances as an obstacle to giving to their alma maters, and young alumni in particular say their student debt prevents them from making a gift. Surveys show that the younger our alumni are, the more their opinion of their alma mater hinges on the career services we provide them—and the less satisfied they are with those services. More than half of students say their career services offices are unhelpful or only somewhat helpful, and only 16 percent rate their offices as very helpful.

These statistics compel us to better serve our constituents and adopt a long-term view of the value of alumni career services. Offering career services to alumni might fall outside the scope of what your team and institution do today, but it is essential to cultivating giving capacity.

Student debt // Economic inequality // Culture wars

Our institutions are bit players in the great play, and right now that play is more tragic than comic. Default rates for student loans are higher than ever, the average millennial won't earn as much as her parents, and public perception of higher education in the United States is as partisan as anything else right now.

We can only begin to chip away at negative public perception of higher education—but that isn't our job anyway. Our task is only to build trust with our own communities.

We can start by taking on the issues above.