It's something I've been thinking a lot about lately, but continues to vex me.
Every four or five months or so, I receive a letter or heavy paper packet from Bowdoin College, where, unfortunately, I am an alumnus. Inside the envelope, there is a letter on which there is a list of people who purport to be my "alumni officers," a title I find a little bit authoritarian. Still, though, the college has developed a bunch of sophisticated mechanisms to stress you out into donating.
First, invariably many of your college officers will be someone with which you've been friends at some point prior in your life. This is natural, given a school size of about 1,700 students. When you refuse to donate, you're not only abdicating your relationships to your institution, but you're also showing a current or former confidant that you're either too poor to get with the program or that you reject your mutual relationship.
Second, the college very publicly releases a list of those who have donated. By negation, if your name is not on there, it is evident that you did not donate. So, when I wanted to find out if I was the only one of my friend coterie at the college who did not donate, it turns out I was entirely alone. From the phenomenally impoverished graduate student to the high-flying New York paralegal, everyone seemed to donate. The public nature of the list serves as an excellent passive shaming mechanism that adds allure to the above concern, because, if you do not donate, could it possibly mean that you regret going to the institution and therefore regret your friendships?
Finally, the college uses a tactic that is deeply familiar to anyone who has ever thought of the phone ethics of working with call-center originated telephone calls: it has eighteen year-old students be the face of the calls. If you, like me, have ever canvassed, made political calls, delivered fliers, or cold-called for sales, you know it's the most soul-sucking job you can have 99% of the time. If you're a mildly decent human being, you don't attack the messenger and this is precisely one of the most nefarious manifestations of the sales tactics. At no point are colleges and universities held accountable for the concerns of any small-fry alumna/us.
During my time at this college, the institution attempted to subsidize massages (although not make them affordable) and other luxury wellness features, while simultaneously charging for what Malcolm Gladwell noted as extremely expensive food. It should be noted, too, that most of the dining staff were and likely continue to be cut during the summer or, if they were allowed to stay on, they earned at or near the minimum wage without benefits.
I left that institution with the third highest amount of student debt to my name that year and - as a result of a recession and taking a job that paid far below the regional poverty line working 70-80 hours a week (plus the costs of commuting two hours each way) - still requiring graduate school.
As I filled out taxes two weeks ago, I realized that 35% of my pre-tax income went to student loan interest (none makes it to the principal) and another 15% went to health care costs, as I was an Obamacare individual enrollee. During this period of time, I received no less than ten calls from the various institutions.
Although you see it in blips, surprisingly few people have linked alumni donations to the perpetuation of paying student loans. My suspicion is that it is because it's relatively clear that outside of for-profit online schools, no one holds nonprofit institutions to any economic wellbeing outcome standard.
It should be self evident that you should not donate to your college or university until you've retired your own financial obligations and I would evangelize this to any person considering donating to his or her alma mater.