Macalester enlists alum in higher education donations race

The letters, emails, and calls began a few weeks after graduating from Macalester. It’s not too late to donate to the Macalester annual fund, they said. Your contribution can still be tallied on the senior class gift!

I declined. I was sure I’d donate to the college eventually. But hearing how much Mac needed my contribution just as I was beginning to pay off the pile of student debt with my name on it, I wasn’t ready to pull the trigger. Maybe in a year, I told myself.

The letters and emails kept coming. I asked my girlfriend, a graduate of one of Macalester’s peers in the “highly selective” liberal arts universe, whether she received the same pile of mail. She said no.

A few months later, after turning an internship into a full-time job but still unsure as to whether I’d donate, I decided I’d keep track of the solicitations, half convinced that the deluge of donation-requests was in my head.

It wasn’t.

Offers for customized Macalester mailing labels if you donate today. Testimonials from fellow alumni about the value of a Macalester education. Financial aid statistics underlining Macalester’s generosity. Updates on fundraising efforts. An appeal to our competitive instincts, asking why Carleton’s alumni giving rate was so much higher than Macalester’s.

It became rare to receive something bearing Macalester’s name that didn’t also feature a donation link or phone number. When John B. Davis, former president and Macalester legend, passed away, I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email from the alumni office featuring kind words and a set of links to obituaries elsewhere.

It was the first time in a while that correspondence from Mac reminded me of what I loved about my time at the college.

I went home that day to find yet another solicitation for money in my mailbox.

During the college’s 2012 fiscal year, I received 25 emails, six letters or postcards and five phone calls. I can’t speak for my fellow alumni, but the annual fund asked me to donate about every 10 days.

Macalester, to its credit, is one of the more generous liberal arts schools in doling out financial aid, a point Annual Fund Director Danielle Nelson ‘05 made in an email exchange we had last week and one her office frequently uses to lead its sales pitch.

Still, tuition is up 85 percent in the last decade. Average U.S. household income fell 5 percent in inflation-adjusted terms during the same period.

Higher education has become an arms race, with schools competing to outdo each other in student services and in the U.S. News & World Report rankings (which, it’s no coincidence, include alumni donation rate as a factor in its annual assessment of best colleges).

Under President Rosenberg, the fundraising office has made a goal of increasing Macalester’s donation rate, which has historically trailed that of peer schools. Apparently, that effort includes a gargantuan outreach campaign to folks like me.  Macalester has decided to take part in the race.

The system, if it’s not broken yet, is getting there. Alumni contributions are important, but I’m not sure philanthropy will fix the problem. In any case, the barrage of donation-soliciting gimmicks that have defined my contact with the college during the last couple years has made me less interested in contributing.

A few weeks after Rosenberg took office, he was quoted in a press release touting Macalester’s one-spot rise, to 25th, in the U.S. News rankings of liberal arts colleges.

“We should resist putting too much stock in such rankings and should instead focus on achieving excellence by our own standards,” he said. Amen.

Nearly a decade later, after moving heaven and earth in an effort to boost alumni contributions to college, Macalester stands one spot higher, at 24th.

Matt Day is a 2010 graduate of Macalester.