Senior gift programs should not be coercive
At Dartmouth, the giving rate for the senior-class gift this year was a staggering 99.9 percent, with only one student refusing to donate. Toward the end of the campaign when it became clear that the participation rate was not going to be 100 percent, peer pressure ensued, with Dartmouth’s student blog publicly criticizing the lone student. Yet the student continued to defend her decision, noting that her “negative experiences of Dartmouth outweighed the positive—that is all.” Such severe criticism by the student body was unwarranted. As senior classes everywhere try to raise money in creative and fruitful manners, they would do well to allow seniors to have their own opinions and make decisions that align with their personal values in terms of either donating or choosing not to do so.
Senior-gift programs in which soon-to-be alumni are encouraged to give back to their school are quite common. Often, however, these programs rely on peer-pressure tactics and stigmas to solicit further donations from students who have not yet donated—in addition to Dartmouth, Cornell earned well-deserved criticism for the extreme pressure placed on students to give a gift. Indeed, a forced gift at the end of one’s college career is not a constructive way to generate philanthropic trends in alumni. Students should give to their universities because they believe in supporting the causes their money will help, not because their names will otherwise be published on a blog and they will be harassed by their peers.
Accordingly, any outreach done by senior-gift programs should be for awareness purposes only, not coercion. Gifts allow colleges to create more scholarship programs and provide extra resources for students. Ideally, students will be inspired to give when they think of what their gift will provide incoming classes, rather than the pressure received by the outgoing senior class.
At Harvard, all seniors are asked to give $10 to senior gift. Additionally, there is a tiered program by which students who give $250 or more become part of Harvard College Fund Associates Program. The Associates Program provides a structure and incentives that encourage alumni to contribute to the College—a worthy way of securing the College some of the funds it needs to foster its cutting-edge learning and research environment while affording opportunities to students from different socioeconomic backgrounds.
Yet making the distinction between being a regular donor to senior gift and being part of the Associates Program senior year, pre-graduation, is too early. Senior gift contributions are largely based on a student’s circumstances—accordingly, making distinctions due to students’ wealth while they are in college is detrimental to the egalitarian community the College tries so hard to protect. Such stratification is far less scarring after college.
Universities have a pressing need for contributions. As they create programs and provide incentives for students to give through senior gifts, however, they must be mindful of the different circumstances and opinions of the seniors they ask—and they must respect their decisions. The goal of a senior gift, after all, is to establish the habit of giving after graduation, not to secure a one-time, superficial $10.