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Colleges target undergrads for donations

The University of Alabama uses a banner on its campus in Tuscaloosa to promote fund-raising.Jason Getz / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Leon Harris pays for his education at the University of Alabama on his own. He's drowning in student loans, he's between jobs and his dorm room just got more expensive.

Yet on a recent afternoon, during a break at the student center, the sophomore sat facing a banner that asked him to donate money to a new student capital campaign. The university wants each of its 21,000 students to give at least $2 toward a scholarship for someone who will be the first in his family to go to college.

"I don't have any money to give," said Harris, who's from Montgomery. "I give them a lot of money already."

Public universities traditionally have not solicited their undergraduates for donations — Alabama hasn't asked since 1922. But faced with state budget cuts and the need to remain competitive, schools across the country are beginning to focus on students as young as freshmen and sophomores as prime targets for fund-raising campaigns.

At California State Polytechnic University at Pomona, undergraduates give to a students-only fund, established in 1998, that's used for scholarships. Several schools, including the University of Georgia, solicit seniors to donate typically $35 to 50 for the betterment of the campus. At Auburn University, a few colleges within the university are asking students to make contributions in the amount of their class year — $20.04 for 2004, for example.

The movement isn't surprising since public colleges and universities have turned their attention to younger and younger alumni over the years, said John Taylor of Durham, N.C., a higher education consultant who specializes in fund raising.

Fair game
"You typically didn't approach people until a good five years post graduation. That seemed to be rule of thumb," Taylor said. "Over the last decade or two, we've seen that shift, so the day after graduation they're fair game. Now the shift has moved further to talking to seniors before they graduate, so logically that translates to the earlier you contact the student the better."

Alabama senior Glen Gregory doesn't care that student donations go to a scholarship. Nor does he care that university officials are asking for what they say amounts to about the price of a cup of Starbucks coffee.

"I wouldn't give money now, but I'd give money later," said Gregory, a Memphis, Tenn., native whose parents help pay his tuition. "I got a pretty tight budget. ... It would pretty much be me asking my parents for money."

Philanthropy experts believe the campaigns reflect what private institutions have done all along.

Now, "there is a growing need (by public colleges and universities) for private donations because of evolution of government funding," said Tim Seiler, director of the fund-raising school at the Center for Philanthropy at Indiana University.

States are facing tough economic times, with more and more taxpayer dollars going for faculty pay raises and rising health care costs. That leaves universities to come up with money for building and expansion themselves, typically through private donations and tuition increases.

Of Alabama's 16 four-year colleges, half have increased tuition by at least 33 percent over the past four years. Nationwide, tuition climbed 10.5 percent at public four-year colleges last year.

But university officials insist that tapping undergraduates for donations isn't just about the money. "It's about establishing a firm tradition of giving," said Graham Smith, coordinator of UA's student campaign.

The theory is that if students get in the habit of donating a couple of dollars each year, then giving as alumni will be almost second nature. It also serves as fuel for more traditional capital campaigns that target older alumni to give large chunks toward research and technology, the idea being "if a freshman can donate, so can a working professional."

It also teaches students the true value of their education — "what it really costs to run this gigantic machine," Smith said.

Undergraduates who receive scholarships seem to be more willing to donate if the money goes toward scholarships.

Freshmen Matt Clay and Justin Headley, both of Oxford, attend Alabama on academic scholarships and look to their parents for spending money. Even though they are "scraping by," they say they will give to the student campaign because it's going to help another student.

"I think if we can see the results, like see a kid get a scholarship, then we'll want to give more," Headley said.