Senior Class Gift: How to Groom Future Donors

By Michael Richter

As mentioned in last week’s Mac Weekly, this year’s senior class gift of “donate to the Annual Fund” has not been met with much student approval. I hesitate to criticize the gift because I like Macalester and would hate to leave on a sour note, but it seems no one else will call these people out on their nonsense. Paul Odegaard and the senior class gift committee have been pestering the senior class with a barrage of e-mails and wasteful social events to try to squeeze a few extra dollars out of us before we graduate. Their project is filled with such greed, shortsightedness, and absurdity that I feel embarrassed just to be associated with the whole thing. The very idea of asking current students to donate money to the college is inappropriate. Not only are we unable to earn money because of our academic work, but the price of coming to Macalester has left many students with debt that will take years to pay off. There is also little promise in the job market, putting even more pressure on students who are trying to start their careers after college. The trivial amount that students could donate is far more valuable in their own hands than in Macalester’s, what with its $600 million endowment. We are the group that can least afford to sacrifice money, but the school is asking us anyway. The message this sends is that Macalester values its own financial security over its students’ and prioritizes fund-raising above their success.

It is also an insult to the commitment we made by coming here. The $180,000 Macalester charges is several times what we would have spent if we had gone to state schools. And while the education may be better here, it is certainly not four or five times better. We came here because we believed in the college’s mission and the concept of the liberal arts, and we were willing to pay an outrageous amount for it. Now we’re being told that what we paid was not enough, and we should donate a little extra for everything the school gave us. This is how our administrators thank our families for their commitment.

It is surprising, then, that Macalester would even bother asking for money, especially considering we have so little to give. But their motivations are more long term. First, there is the obvious motive of getting a higher alumni participation rate. Among other benefits, an increase in this number would contribute to our standing in the U.S. News & World Report’s annual ranking, something we need after falling out of the top 25 in liberal arts. But more importantly, by getting us into the habit of giving to the college, they hope to groom us into being long-term donors. Once someone donates even a little, it sets a precedent and makes them more likely to continue giving. Paul Odegaard, the Advancement employee who is in charge of the project, described this aspect of the gift as a “philanthropic teaching tool.” Well, first I would question whether a poor person giving money to a rich entity is really “philanthropic.” Also, what he’s doing is more “programming” than “teaching”; if he thinks getting us all together in a room with alcohol and recycled public relations material from the Step Forward campaign is teaching us something, then he doesn’t know the meaning of the word.

The arguments Odegaard and the committee use to persuade seniors to donate are as shallow as the reasoning behind the gift. They say that the Annual Fund is crucial to Macalester’s ability to cover costs, and that they depend on donations. Besides my points about why students should not be a fund-raising source, my response to this is “Why is this a student concern?” We pay tuition, and beyond that, our only job should be studying and being upstanding citizens. How administrators deliver what we pay for is their business. This may sound cold, what with our community-oriented approach to everything, but this college is a business, and we have the right to act like customers.

The other big argument they throw at us is “Did you have a good experience here? Did Macalester deliver? … Then give something back.” Not only does this ignore the fact that we pay tuition, but it is a half-baked idea from the start. If Macalester didn’t deliver, would I have the right to ask for my money back? I don’t think so.

Ultimately, the most unfortunate thing about the class gift is that it could be bad for the school. When we graduate after four years of working hard, paying tuition, and being active in campus life, it would be nice to see the school send us off by showing more active concern for our future and thanking us for our commitment. Instead, they chose to degrade the experience by asking us for a few more dollars while we’re still on the leash. It sends a message about how Macalester values its students, and it’s something I won’t forget when it comes time to make real donations in the future.

I am not telling seniors or alumni not to give to the school. If seniors want to help the school’s ranking for their own benefit, no one can blame them. What people do with their money is their own business. But personally, I will only consider giving to the college when I’m in a reasonable position to do so. And I feel it is a shame that after spending such a nice four years here, I have to leave knowing that the school looks at me as a future donor rather than a proud alumnus.

Michael Richter ’10 can be reached at [email protected]