Fancy Fundraising’s New Frontier: Community Colleges

The long-neglected stepsiblings of wealthy private colleges and flagship public universities are trying something they've never done before: asking for money

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On a winter night later this year, an elite group of 400 guests will dine on glazed leg of lamb, mushroom caps with crabmeat, and bacon-wrapped chicken livers passed around on silver trays by white-gloved servers at the private Seven Oaks Country Club in western Pennsylvania. Over wine and desserts of petit fours and handmade chocolates, they will bid on jewelry and other luxury items in a silent auction. It will be an elegant, if not entirely unconventional, fundraising event. But it’s for a very unusual benefactor: the local community college.

Once a punch-and-cookies affair held in the campus cafeteria, the Community College of Beaver County holiday party is part of a new effort by community colleges—the long-neglected and comparatively impoverished stepsiblings of wealthy private colleges and flagship public universities—to raise money from donors, including alumni, who have never been asked for it before.

“They’ve never had to be asked,” said Walter Dillingham Jr., managing director for endowments and foundations at Wilmington Trust, who coauthored a study of community college fundraising. “In the past, community colleges could cover their budgets with government funding. So they’re a little late to the game.”

But deep cuts of 28 percent in state allocations for higher education since the start of the economic downturn in 2008, combined with pressure to keep tuition within reach of the low-income students who make up much of their enrollments, are forcing community colleges to join the fundraising frenzy.

“Community colleges are realizing that they can’t raise tuition, and they can’t go back to the government,” said Dillingham. “So what’s the other choice? The other choice is to invest in fundraising.”

They have a lot of catching up to do.

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At a time when the average research or doctoral university raises more than $90 million a year, the typical community college gets barely $1 million in donations, the Council for Aid to Education says. Total average annual contributions to each of the 207 mid-Atlantic and northeastern community colleges whose financial records it reviewed came to $771,823, according to the Wilmington Trust report. More than one in five don’t even have fundraising foundations.

“We are really behind the times here,” said Nancy Dickson, vice president for development at the Community College of Beaver County, whose staff consists of herself and a secretary.

Investments from community colleges’ endowments, combined, earn $27.6 million a year, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. That’s how much Harvard alone makes from its $32.7 billion endowment about every two and a half days.

“Of all the tens of billions of dollars contributed to higher education generally, less than one percent goes to community colleges. And that’s really appalling,” said Stuart Grover, chairman emeritus of the Collins Group, a Seattle-based fundraising consulting firm, who has written a book about community college fundraising.

Community colleges face huge challenges in turning this around.

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For one thing, they are trying to coax their alumni to support them at a time when graduates from all types of higher-education institutions seem less and less inclined to give back. The proportion of alumni who contribute to their alma maters of any type has declined by one-third in the last 10 years, the consulting firm Eduventures reports.

Nor are many community college students in a position to make financial contributions. Forty-one percent fall below the poverty line, and more than a third who live apart from their families make less than $20,000 a year, according to the community college association. Even after graduating, they can expect to earn, on average, a third less than bachelor’s degree-holders, and two thirds less than people with master’s degrees. In a survey conducted by one community college last year, the most common reason given by alumni for not contributing, by far, was that they simply couldn’t afford it.

“There is not a culture of philanthropy on community college campuses,” said Grover. “The students are from a different socioeconomic background, mostly. Many of them work while they’re going to school, or have families, or go part time because they can’t afford to go full time. The thought of philanthropy is just not a part of their lives.”

Many community colleges don’t even keep track of their alumni. When her college set out to start raising money from its former students, Dickson and her secretary had to manually enter the names of 18,000 people, one at a time, in a database. Tracking these potential donors is expensive and labor-intensive. So is holding the kinds of reunions or homecomings with which four-year institutions lure alumni back to campus.

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“Community colleges unfortunately have not had the resources to do that,” Grover said. “They have not succeeded in creating that sense of connection.”

In some cases, it’s hard to determine exactly who are the alumni of community colleges. Many community college students transfer, never graduate, or earn certificates but not degrees. Most attend part time, and almost none live on campus. “And they tend not to look back,” Grover said. In that survey conducted last year by a community college, one in 10 alumni said they don’t even list it on their resumes.

“The issue we as community colleges have, compared to a Harvard or others, is that people forget where they started,” said John Sygielski, president of HACC, in Pennsylvania, formerly called the Harrisburg Area Community College, which has a long-established and successful fundraising arm. “They’ll forget it was the community college that gave them the confidence and the start they needed.”

That may be changing. As tuition continues to spiral, more students from middle- and upper-income families are enrolling in cheaper community colleges with the aim of transferring to four-year universities for their junior and senior years. More than one-fifth of students from families making more than $100,000 now go to community colleges, lender Sallie Mae reports. And in some particularly high-demand fields, including computer engineering, drafting, and machining, community college graduates earn more than graduates in other subjects with bachelor’s degrees.

“We’re getting more—quote, unquote—mainstream students,” said J. Noah Brown, president of the Association of Community College Trustees. “That’s an excellent market that we might be able to make a lot of inroads with. It can shift the tide.”

Back at the Community College of Beaver County, Dickson is preparing for the next big fundraising push that will follow the holiday party: soliciting donations, for the first time, from the college’s top-earning graduates, beginning in January.

And, yes, she says, “I do think our alumni will be surprised to be asked.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.