I got a call from a kid named Bolah (or something like that) a couple of nights ago. Bolah was a current student at Duke (where I graduated 15 years ago). He wanted to chat, although we both knew what this call was about. After a few superficial icebreaker questions, he got down to business. Duke, it seems, needs my help.
I told Bolah this, more-or-less word for word: There's no way I'll ever give Duke any money (well, any more money, technically). I asked him to lose my number permanently. In fact, I offered him a hundred bucks if he changed my contact info so I'd never hear from Duke again.
I was fairly pissed off when I hung up. Not at Bolah, but at Duke.
Why? Universities have treat people like Bolah as pawns, using them to summon nostalgia, to subtly remind me about what a great time I had in college. They're counting on that nostalgia. Maybe they're also trying to remind me of my salad days, encourage me to kick in a few bucks now that I have a little money. I'm sure a tremendous amount of social research has been done in this area and I'm sure Duke pays some consultant handsomely to keep them abreast of the latest and greatest ways to fleece alumni.
Call me cynical maybe, but for someone who's spent a decade in postsecondary educational institutions, it may surprise you to find that I have a rather dim view of how colleges and universities operate. A lot of this antipathy has to deal with the lack of reciprocity between student and institution. For example, education requires a large upfront investment with absolutely no guarantee you'll get anything. It's not like buying a loaf of bread, where there's a pretty good likelihood you get what you pay for. Any degree program is a speculative investment on your part when you walk in as a freshman. Those debts you're racking up may be represent an endeavor with no intrinsic value if you flunk out eighteen months later. Even if you graduate, you might not get much benefit out of the deal. Ask anyone who went to ITT or Online U.
None of that is necessarily the fault of colleges and universities. However, once you're in the door, schools do not hesitate to remind you that they are now in charge. Transferring credits? Graduation requirements? Their rules. Don't like it? Leave with nothing. Try getting a transcript before you've paid the University every last dime you owe them. I've seen Ivy League institutions hold up transcripts ten years later over an unpaid parking ticket.
This (sometimes forced) lack of parity never really engendered goodwill on my part. Even forgetting that, it's baffling to find that universities seem to project this relationship forward, to their alumni.
Here's my challenge to you: Name any other transaction where the merchant will call you up years later and ask for more money for absolutely no reason other than the fact that you once did a little business 15 years ago. A charity maybe? Religion?
There is a very, very strong sense of entitlement coming from these schools. It's as if I owe them something, and they're REALLY shameless about asking. Since leaving, I've never given Duke a dime. And they're still coming back after more than a decade, seemingly certain that this time I'll open up my checkbook.
There's a five dollar word describing this phenomenon: Paralogia. It means 'false or illogical thinking.' For example, an alumni relations person assuming you would want to voluntarily give their organization money while you're still in debt with student loans.
But paralogia cuts both ways - schools wouldn't maintain large fundraising departments if it didn't work reasonably well. I used to be baffled when people who've suffered the same problems somehow forget the major and minor injustices of college and abandon their only remaining way to say fuck you to the people who were once 'The Man' in our lives.
Let's examine why, shall we?
The Unaccountable Dollar
Universities usually want you to donate to their general fund, where a specific purpose isn't attached to your money. The institution can do what it wants with it (see above picture).
Practically speaking, I would be very hesitant to give any higher education institution a blank check. They always say things about hiring faculty and scholarships. Maybe that's true, but there's also a chance I'll be adding to the school's bloated infrastructure. I could be helping to pay for them to build an organic coffee bar in the gym or paying the salary of the new dean of minority self-esteem. with my firsthand experience, I know there's little chance that they'll reinvest it into their core product (that would be education, in case you were wondering), Fact is, Universities spend as little as possible on the actual educators - public school teachers almost universally make more than lecturers at the college level.
There's a reason for this: Creating a better education is a dry topic when asking for money. It's easier to create drones who conflate liking a sports team with supporting an organization whose institutional mission is to ensure their continued employment. To this end, creating people who are well-positioned for financial/occupational success doesn't make a university as much as creating thoughtless drones who are fans of the brand. By giving schools unrestricted dollars, you are (in large part) making a tax-deductible contribution to a marketing organization.
This is also why schools spend so much on amenities. Colleges - especially private ones - can be incredibly luxurious. By sinking tons of cash into making school a fun place, you can create graduates who remember college as the best time of their life and who will pay to reconnect with it. In doing so, they'll forget being fucked over by the university, the thirty years of student loans and astronomical tuition increases are a direct result of this strategy. Cognitive dissonance, it seems, can be ignored if you emerge from school believing you can network your way into a good job at an alumni fundraiser.
Simply put, schools are chasing what's profitable. I can't blame them for this, but I can choose to not support it.
Noah's Inner Monologue
Scribblings of a man who can barely operate an idiotproof website.