Like so many, I met some of my closest friends in college. That includes my best friend, Matt (not his real name), who graduated alongside me from Stonehill College in 2007. While many graduates from the 2008–2009 classes struggled to start their careers after graduation, Matt and I graduated at a time when the economy was still growing. He parlayed a college internship directly into a good-paying job that started soon after graduation. A few years later, he graduated with a master’s degree from one of the more selective public flagships in the country.
Today, 20 years after he first stepped foot on campus as a freshman, Matt says that, looking back, he’s glad he made the choices he did regarding his education. He’s proud to call himself an alumnus of both his undergraduate and graduate alma maters. He feels that both institutions had a positive impact on his life. He has a rewarding career; met his wife on campus while attending graduate school; visits campus each fall to attend college football home games.
In so many positive ways, Matt’s story represents the story for so many that seek out higher education. But there’s another interesting anecdote about Matt—one that also mirrors the majority of college-educated adults in this country: Matt doesn’t donate to either of his alma maters.
“I’ve given enough at this point,” he says, “and I feel that any charitable contributions I make are for causes or organizations that I’m more passionate about.”
I've been thinking about Matt, as well as my own experiences and perceptions, as we've analyzed the data from SimpsonScarborough's latest original research study. There is no shortage of surveys, reports, and stories about the decline in public perception regarding higher education. But these surveys, exclusively as far as we can tell, include the perspective of citizens that have and have not earned their college degree. At SimpsonScarborough, we found ourselves wondering, what would the data look like if we focused only on college-educated adults? We’ve talked to alumni and donors from hundreds of colleges and universities, but to date, we’ve never done research with a national sample of alumni. That is no longer the case.
For our 2023 Alumni Philanthropy report, we surveyed more than 1,000 college-educated adults across the United States. Nearly half of our alumni were first-generation graduates. Nearly 80% made less than $150,000 a year. And, the majority of respondents were between 30-50 years old. We wanted to understand how alumni viewed higher education, and to what extent they believed in its value. We also wanted to understand what compels alumni to donate to higher education, and if/how colleges and universities could convince more alumni like Matt to give back to their alma mater.
Our study arrives at an interesting time. On the one hand, we know that, as recently as summer 2022, higher education continues to face declines in public perception. But we also know, via our friends at CASE, that higher education experienced a banner year for fundraising in fiscal year 2022.
So, What Gives? In many respects, our research reflects this and other juxtapositions.
Yes, college-educated adults are giving, but higher education isn’t a giving priority. In fact, 3 in 4 alumni say that they give to at least one cause a year, but only 1 in 3 give to their alma mater.
Alumni take pride in their own college experiences, but not in the state of higher ed today. 70% of alumni who are proud of their alma mater also have a negative opinion of higher ed's impact on the United States today.
It’s clear that cost is a major driver for negative industry perceptions. However, at an individual level, alumni who took out loans, are currently paying loans, or took out larger loan amounts don’t feel this more intensely than alumni without loans.
The key to building a future pipeline of major donors doesn’t include soliciting philanthropic contributions. Instead, engagement, and especially volunteering, looks to be the key predictive action. Interestingly, young alumni are more apt to engage with their alma mater, and when they volunteer, they ultimately give more frequently and in higher amounts.
Overall, the apparent contradictions between widely reported higher ed fundraising success metrics alongside our own research findings with college-educated adults on their perceptions of higher education and giving back to their alma mater left us with more questions than answers.
And honestly, that’s OK.
At SimpsonScarborough, we take pride in possessing what organizational psychologist Adam Grant describes as a Learner Mindset. We don’t pretend to have all the answers; we never have. But over the course of our 16-year history, we’ve learned the importance of asking the right questions that lead to meaningful dialogue.
And that, in large part, is what this study is about. In our report, we’ve layered insights from our primary research data with contextual secondary research findings. We’ve also shared preliminary takeaways from SimpsonScarborough and our colleagues within the industry, along with questions we’re asking about our data. Finally, sprinkled into our report are examples of colleges and universities demonstrating best practices in building deeper, more successful relationships with their alumni and alumnae.
As higher education marketers and advancement leaders, we find ourselves at a crossroads. We can continue to bemoan the decline in public perception about higher education--even among those who are proud to say that they benefited from the very same colleges and universities that make up the industry they criticize--or we can devote our attention to better serving those who still believe in the power and value of higher education.
At SimpsonScarborough, we’re firmly in the latter camp. And we believe this report represents a first step in focusing on a future in which marketing and advancement leaders can work closer together to build deeper, more meaningful relationships with a critical audience that will play an active role in the future financial health of our industry.
A 15-year veteran of higher ed, Steve shapes the value SimpsonScarborough delivers to its clients, friends, and industry colleagues through its publicly available industry research and original content. A natural relationship builder, he also helps marketing leaders on campus understand how the agency can help them meet their individual and organizational goals. When not working, you can find him searching for new donut shops to visit or running (to burn off the donuts).