With State Budgets Under Pressure, Public Colleges Turn to Alumni for Support

With state legislatures across the country cutting back on their financial support for higher education, public colleges and universities increasingly are turning to alumni in an effort to raise funds, the New York Times reports.

In the Northeast, where state governments traditionally have been generous and many private colleges and universities have well established fundraising departments, public institutions have been slow to develop the large, active networks of affluent alumni that could help them offset cuts in government funding. But the need to play catch up is putting some institutions in the awkward position of having to eliminate academic programs and instructors while expanding their development staffs and investing in their fundraising infrastructure.

According to administrators, one of the biggest fundraising challenges is making alumni and other potential donors aware that public institutions can no longer get by on government money alone. For example, when the State University of New York at Geneseo surveyed its alumni three years ago, it was heartened to find that most students had positive things to say about their college experience. But when asked if they would consider donating to the school, almost all said they thought the university was entirely funded by the state, when in fact the state's contribution was just 25 percent and has fallen since. Further complicating the matter, wealthy alumni tend to direct their giving toward high-profile projects such as new academic buildings and endowed chairs rather than to help cover operating costs.

Despite the challenges, officials at many public universities have made the solicitation of private donors a top priority. And while large public universities such as the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Washington, and the University of Michigan have been running ambitious fundraising campaigns for decades, smaller public institutions are learning from their success and have begun to track affluent alumni, promote the achievements of their athletic teams, and host more alumni events.

Still, there may be such a thing as too much private money. "If there is a risk in it, it's that it will take legislatures off the hook," said National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education president Patrick M. Callan. "They might get the impression that we can make up for the cuts through philanthropy, and that could make us vulnerable to further cuts."

Lisa W. Foderaro. "Amid Cuts, Public Colleges Step Up Appeals to Alumni." New York Times 01/15/2011.