News and analysis
February 15, 2012

College Giving Rebounded Last Year

Stanford University announced last week that a five-year capital campaign that ended December 31 had attracted $6.2-billion.

After two lackluster years, donations to U.S. colleges and universities rose last year to an estimated $30.3-billion. That’s an 8.2-percent increase or 4.8 percent after inflation, according to a report by the Council for Aid to Education.

The total for the 2011 fiscal year, raised while economic news was mixed, comes close to the $31.6-billion brought in during 2008, the best year ever for giving to colleges. Adjusted for inflation, giving increased 4.8 percent.

But the bad news—at least for most of higher education—is that 86 percent of the money went to just 25 percent of the institutions. And while those saw donations soar by 11.3 percent, the other three-quarters of institutions attracted 9.6 percent less money over all in 2011 than they had in 2010, the report says.

The figures come from the council’s annual “Voluntary Support for Education” survey, which counts donations from individuals as well as giving by companies and foundations. Foundation gifts account for the largest share of the 2011 total—almost 29 percent, or $8.7-billion—but rose only 3.3 percent from the previous year. Corporate donations, which increased by 6.1 percent to $5-billion, represented nearly 17 percent of the total.

Meanwhile, giving by alumni rose almost 10 percent, to $7.8-billion, or just under 26 percent of the overall amount. And gifts from other individuals shot up almost 15 percent, to almost $5.7-billion—approaching a fifth of total donations.

Optimism on Campuses

The report, based on responses from 1,009 institutions, confirms anecdotal evidence from many fundraisers who see brighter days ahead.

When giving “snapped back” after the recession, said Carl E. Zylstra, president of Dordt College, “it snapped back at a higher level than it had ever been.”

Mr. Zylstra said the college, in Sioux Center, Iowa, came in $7-million over the $50-million goal for a recent campaign, and planned to break ground for a new science building either this fall or next spring.

“People are optimistic all over the shop,” said Geoffrey Chatas, Ohio State University’s senior vice president and chief financial officer. “Our number of gifts larger than half a million dollars was 26 in 2011, compared with 10 the year before.”

Most notable was a $100-million donation to the university hospital in February 2011 from Leslie Wexner, chairman of the university’s board.

The Voluntary Support survey’s director, Ann E. Kaplan, said the overall 2011 increase reflects “a bunch of capital campaigns going on at those big institutions,” such as Stanford University, which raised $709.4-million, more than any other institution.

Stanford announced last week that a five-year capital campaign that ended December 31 had attracted $6.2-billion, the largest total ever for a single campaign by a higher-education institution.

Rounding out the survey’s top five were Harvard University, in the No. 2 spot at $639.2-million; Yale University, at $580.3-million; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, at $534.3-million; and Columbia University, at $495.6-million.

“All you need to drive national numbers is for a handful of institutions to have numbers like that,” Ms. Kaplan said. The top 20 institutions in the survey raised a total of $8.24-billion—15.8 percent more than they did in 2010.

For colleges that aren’t fundraising powerhouses—those in the lower three-quarters of all institutions in terms of giving—results in 2011 were mixed. Although it was a disappointing year for many such colleges, nearly half—46 percent—raised more in 2011 than they had in 2010, and more than a third actually saw increases larger than the 8.2-percent average for all institutions.

The 210 research universities in a 936-member group that responded to both the 2010 and 2011 surveys reported that donations were up 9.1 percent, while giving at 320 master’s institutions rose 8.3 percent, and 260 liberal-arts colleges saw a 13.2-percent increase. The 155 two-year colleges in the survey posted the worst results—an increase of just over 3 percent.

Upticks Big and Small

For many colleges, though, any increase is good news, especially after grim numbers dominated so many news cycles. The Garden City Community College Endowment Association, which raises money for scholarships at the two-year institution in Garden City, Kan., saw total giving rise by about $50,000 in the 2011 fiscal year, to just over $1-million, said Melinda Harrington, the association’s executive director.

The increase came in spite of an extended drought that has worried the area’s local farmers and ranchers, she said, and nearly all of those who gave were individuals and small businesses.

Garden City’s experience was not unique. Despite the national economy’s middling performance in 2011, “people are feeling more positive about philanthropy,” said Sharon D. Herzberger, president of Whittier College. Some donors are doing better financially than they had been at the recession’s low point, while others “are adjusting to the new normal,” she said.

During the recession, Whittier extended the quiet phase of a still-unannounced fundraising campaign, Ms. Herzberger said, but now it’s going back to potential donors to describe the campaign’s goals. She added: “We’re feeling good about reaching out to alumni and parents. They like the notion of being able to help students come to a very high quality college and get a good education.”

Indiana University administrators are feeling similarly upbeat.

“Last year we had the second highest number of donors on record,” said Eugene R. Tempel, president of the university foundation. “I think we’re very optimistic—we already have some big gifts in hand for this fiscal year.”

Even though it raised about $47-million less in 2011 than in 2010, Indiana ranked 17th on the survey’s list of institutions attracting the largest sums last year. Mr. Tempel said the university’s fundraising totals are often affected by decisions of the Lilly Endowment, which focuses much of its giving in Indiana and which gave the university’s medical school $60-million in 2010—the third-largest donation in the university’s history. In 2011, he said, the endowment gave the university only about $6-million.

Jan E. Kurtz, Reed College’s director of development, said Reed is “seeing this year turning into a very big year for us,” passing the $185-million mark in a $200-million campaign.

“In general, there’s a great uptick of major-gift activity this year. It’s some combination of people feeling more optimistic about the economy and that we’ve been talking to them for a long time about the campaign.”

The biggest surprise, she said, was a bequest from Helen Stafford, a longtime biology professor who was one of the college’s first female science professors. Professor Stafford, who died in August, made Reed the sole beneficiary of her will, leaving $8-million. Of that, $1-million will support the biology department, and the rest will go to financial aid.

Stanford Led in Raising Private Donations in 2010-11
More than one-quarter of the $30-billion given to institutions of higher education last year went to these 20 universities.
    Amount raised (in millions)  
  Institution name 2010-11 2009-10 Percentage change
1 Stanford U. $709.4 $598.9 +18.5%
2 Harvard U. $639.2 $597.0 +7.1%
3 Yale U. $580.3 $380.9 +52.4%
4 Massachusetts Institute of Technology $534.3 $307.2 +74.0%
5 Columbia U. $495.6 $402.4 +23.2%
6 Johns Hopkins U. $485.4 $427.6 +13.5%
7 U. of Pennsylvania $437.7 $381.6 +14.7%
8 U. of California at Los Angeles $415.0 $340.4 +21.9%
9 U. of California at San Francisco $409.5 $268.9 +52.3%
10 U. of Southern California $402.4 $426.0 -5.5%
11 U. of Texas at Austin $354.3 $235.3 +50.6%
12 Duke U. $349.7 $345.5 +1.2%
13 New York U. $337.9 $349.2 -3.3%
14 U. of Washington $334.5 $285.2 +17.3%
15 U. of Wisconsin at Madison $315.8 $311.9 +1.3%
16 Cornell U. $315.5 $308.2 +2.4%
17 Indiana U. $295.9 $342.8 -13.7%
18 U. of California at Berkeley $283.4 $307.5 -7.9%
19 U. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill $275.0 $266.9 +3.0%
20 U. of Minnesota $272.6 $245.0 +11.3%
Source: Council for Aid to Education


Lawrence Biemiller is a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education.