In two months, the Class of 2022 will cross the stage at graduation to receive our diplomas. We will also receive a request for $20.22, the first of what Amherst hopes will be a lifetime of financial gifts to the college. Indeed, each year, about half of all Amherst alumni donate money to their alma mater.
I, however, will never give money to Amherst College. Now, let me start by saying that I don’t presume to tell anyone else what to do with their money. When I worked for the Amherst Phonathon, I spoke to many alumni who got great satisfaction from donating. For that job, I also heard (and made) many arguments for why all alumni should donate. Today, I’m going to explain my personal reasoning for not doing so in the hope of providing a different perspective before you send off that fat check.
The most common argument against donating to your college is simple. Many students see themselves in a purely transactional relationship with their school. Can you imagine if your dentist or landlord called you to ask for a donation out of respect for their service? This alone is a fair reason not to donate, but let’s dig deeper.
Ultimately, college isn’t the same as a root canal or an apartment. It’s a transformative experience, and many people have a deep emotional connection to their school. That’s why so many alumni donate each year. However, to me, the deep bond is not with the administration or institution of Amherst — it comes from the people you meet here, the friends, the mentors, and arch-nemesis co-columnists. Amherst is just the backdrop or mechanism, like the airline I took to Massachusetts or the internet provider that powers eduroam. If my co-columnist called me up in 10 years, asking for money as a favor, I would likely agree. But the institution of Amherst has no right to claim the kind of favors that we reserve for friends.
But enough with the sentimentality — there are also practical reasons not to give. I think it’s best to donate to causes that are both in need of help and will make effective use of money. Amherst is deficient on both counts. In its advertising materials, Amherst claims that programs like financial aid are dependent upon alumni donations, and implies that the less money alumni donate, the less financial aid and other services students will receive. This is misleading. Firstly, alumni donations make up only about 5 percent of the school’s operating budget. The school is about as dependent upon donations as the average student is on Starbucks gift cards. Secondly, Amherst’s core programs (including financial aid) are funded based on student need, not levels of donations. If Amherst receives more alumni donations than it wants, it ends the year with a surplus. If it gets fewer donations, it draws from its immense endowment to make up the difference. This is not to say that alumni donations have zero impact on students’ lives, but the college’s $4 billion margin of error means that gifts translate into only small improvements in the (let’s face it) incredibly privileged life of an Amherst student.
Take, for example, alumni’s tendency to choose which program or club receives their donations. Because of alumni donations, some clubs have more alumni money than they know what to do with, while newer and more obscure clubs are ignored. That leads to inequalities and inefficiencies. I’ve seen this problem firsthand in Glee Club, which, before its recent merger with the more recently established Chorus, received vastly more donations than Chorus, despite having a fraction of Chorus’ members. Glee Club simply had no reasonable way to spend all its alumni money.
Most other charitable causes are far less fortunate than Amherst. Consider donating to Holyoke Community College, which spends roughly one-eighth as much as Amherst per student and has an endowment of just $15 million. Yet despite its relative lack of funds, HCC ranks as one of the best community colleges in the country. Money given to HCC will go to necessities and will tangibly help the education of many students. And that’s not even going into the thousands of other worthy causes, all capable of big impacts but needing funding, which are rigorously analyzed and compared by the nonprofit GiveWell. I intend to donate a portion of my income to charities, but whenever Amherst calls me to ask for money, I’ll send a check to a needier cause.
The reason Amherst solicits donations from its alumni, as it turns out, has less to do with the actual money (which Amherst does not need as desperately as it claims) and more to do with rankings. One of the key metrics on most college ranking systems is the percentage of alumni who donate annually. When an Amherst email begs you to donate even just $1, it’s not because Amherst is scrimping and saving like a kid trying to buy a used bicycle; it’s because Amherst wants to put you down as one of the loyal alumni in order to better game the ranking system.
I don’t intend to forget about Amherst after I graduate. I’m actually looking forward to getting calls from Amherst Phonathon because they will let me talk with current students and learn about changes at Amherst. There are many ways alumni can remain loyal to the people of Amherst without sending checks to administrators. Alumni can advocate on behalf of students. They can donate materials to the Amherst archives. They can advise and support their Amherst friends and classmates who run into personal or financial trouble. At the end of the day, these are the acts that support Amherst as a community, and not as a corporation.