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All Too Rare: A Gift Underscores a Persistent Lack of Support for Community Colleges

Last updated: 05-19-2019

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All Too Rare: A Gift Underscores a Persistent Lack of Support for Community Colleges

I recently had the opportunity to speak with musician, record producer, and artist Herb Alpert, who has supported over 90 organizations throughout his 30 years in philanthropy. Alpert told me that the gift that generated the most positive feedback was his $10.1 million donation to Los Angeles City College (LACC) to provide all music majors with a tuition-free education.

When I asked Alpert to explain the strong reaction to the LACC gift, he said, “because it helps the average person.” Unfortunately, few donors seem to agree. While colleges and universities raised a staggering $43.6 billion in 2017, only 1.5 percent of charitable gift dollars raised by educational institutions went to two-year institutions, despite the fact that community colleges serve 49.2 percent of the country’s college students.

This troubling fact makes a recent gift out of Massachusetts both an anomaly and a cause for cautious optimism. Maureen Wilkens, the widow of Frank Wilkens, a former pensions funds manager, gave a $5 million donation to Cape Cod Community College. The gift was the single largest donation by an individual in the history of the college and is equal to 51 percent of the college’s endowment.

Wilkens has a long philanthropic relationship with Cape Cod Community College. For example, the family has funded the Wilkens Family Trust Scholarship for single mothers since 2007. Kathy McNamara, CEO of the Cape Cod Community College Educational Foundation, said Wilkens was inspired to create the scholarship thanks to a former housekeeper who Wilkens could see was “smart and ambitious.” Wilkens understood that a scholarship could “change the lives of similarly situated people,” McNamara said.

Thanks to her new donation, which is earmarked toward the construction of the college’s new Science and Engineering Building, the Wilkenses have given the college nearly $11 million in total.

“The College is so important to our community. It provides outstanding higher education opportunities for our neighbors on the Cape and Islands and beyond,” Wilkens said. “A new science building has been needed for a very long time. I’m pleased that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is funding $25 million of the project but there is still money to raise to complete the project. I want to make sure, with this new building, CCCC will be able to provide the state-of-the-art Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM) education required in the 21st Century.”

Geoff Green, chief executive officer of the Santa Barbara City College Foundation told Inside Higher Ed’s Marjorie Valbrun that the Wilkens gift is “not the largest gift in the country to a community college, but it is significant and certainly rare. In any given year, you might get a dozen gifts in that general range.” To date, there has not been a single nine-figure donation to a community college.

As previously noted, this acute lack of philanthropic support for community colleges is vexing for a whole host of reasons.

For starters, community colleges serve far more economically disadvantaged students than elite schools. The median family income of a Cape Cod student is $65,000; the median family income of a student at Johns Hopkins, the recipient of Michael Bloomberg’s $1.8 billion mega-gift, is $177,300. Second, community colleges typically do a much better job at boosting social and economic mobility than their Ivy League brethren.

Lastly—and most obviously—donations like those from Alpert and Wilkens can have a far greater impact on a cash-starved community college than a mega-gift flowing to a school sitting on a multi-billion dollar endowment.

Cape Cod’s enrollment fell from a high of 4,452 in fall 2008 to just 2,840 students in fall 2018. State appropriations to the college increased by a mere $1 million in the past decade. The college does not receive any funding from the local county government. Commenting on the gift, president John L. Cox said, “absolutely, this is a transformational gift. It is extremely meaningful. Mrs. Wilkens could have given this gift to anyone, to the Harvards of the world, but it would have gotten lost in the mix of a $39 billion endowment.”

Now contrast this with Michael Bloomberg’s Hopkins gift, which was earmarked for financial aid to help the school raise its share of Pell Grant students to at least 20 percent by 2023. According to some back-of-the-envelope calculations, the donation will pay for approximately 66 new students over five years. The number of actual grads could be even lower—a 2016 Gallup survey of more than 400 college and university presidents pegged the graduation rate for Pell Grant students at 46 percent.

And of those students who eventually graduate, few are likely to enjoy significant economic mobility, according to an analysis by the New York Times, which found that only 2.2 percent of students at Johns Hopkins came from a poor family but became a rich adult.

This is why Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor who studies higher ed at Temple University, felt “sick to my stomach” upon hearing that Bloomberg’s money was earmarked for Johns Hopkins rather than an underfunded community college. Bloomberg is “somebody everyone says finally gets the inequality in higher ed,” she said, “but I think in many ways he just doubled down on it.”

Donors concerned with squeezing the maximum value from their commitment should also be intrigued by the fact that community colleges lack the complex and sprawling administrative machinery of larger schools. “There’s very little administrative overhead, and this has a real effect,” Green said. “The dollars go into the direct educational mission.”

That mission, as far as the Santa Barbara City College is concerned, includes providing students with housing assistance, food aid and other special programs for first-generation students, single parents, and students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds or who were previously incarcerated.

While Green clearly has a dog in the fight—he’s also a board member of the Network of California Community College Foundations—there’s plenty of evidence to back up his contention. Writing in Forbes,George Mason University law professor Todd Zywicki convincingly argued that the two main culprits behind out-of-control tuition are “bureaucrats and buildings.” “The interesting thing about the administrative bloat in higher education is, literally, nobody knows who all these people are or what they’re doing.”

Earlier this year, dozens of Rutgers University professors signed a petition criticizing president Robert L. Barchi’s lack of financial support for diversity and inclusion efforts. The petition noted that 244 Rutgers administrators are paid more than $250,000 a year, and 38 of them are paid more than $500,000. The total price tag for these top administrators is $80 million per year. (New Jersey taxpayers could not be reached for comment.)

The simplest explanation as to why mega-donors are disinterested in community colleges, which by most metrics provide a greater bang for the buck than elite schools, is the fact that few billionaires went to community colleges. Many graduated from top-tier schools and those are the institutions which receive their gifts.

Another reason why community colleges fail to attract big donations is the fact that many are new to the world of high-stakes fundraising. “The Ivies figured this out 100 years ago,” Green said. “The big four-year colleges developed their fundraising in the last 20 to 30 years. For community colleges, it’s more like last Tuesday. That’s really what it feels likes. Many of them either don’t have fundraising foundations or they have them at a shell level where they’re not really professionally staffed, fully self-functioning, philanthropic organizations.”

Not coincidentally, Cape Cod Community College established its foundation in 1983, and subsequent administrators worked hard to cultivate a relationship with the Wilkenses. But the Cape Cod case is an outlier. According to Green, the average community college foundation is about 20 years old. What’s more, aggressively scaling up a sleepy community college foundation takes lots of money—something that’s in short supply at community colleges.

Green also noted that community colleges simply don’t appeal to image-conscious donors looking to put their personal stamp on an institution. “There’s a sexiness factor to a high-profile research institution, whereas a local or regional college doesn’t offer that high-profile recognition for the donor,” he said.

Again, these are all perfectly valid and understandable theories to explain why mega-donors continually pass over community colleges. Donors like having their names adorn buildings at prestigious schools. They enjoy celebratory cocktail parties. They revel in the esteem associated with their Ivy-strewn alma mater. This is one reason why so few gifts are made anonymously. Human nature is a powerful thing.

That said, many donors do make big gifts outside their normal comfort zones or removed from direct experience. Consider Maureen Wilkens, who never attended Cape Cod Community College. And last September, the Ventura College Foundation received a $12 million gift from the estate of non-graduate Miriam Schwab. See? It’s not impossible.

The lack of support for community colleges is even more alarming given the current philanthropic climate. Funders of all stripes have put equity front and center in their work, yet are bypassing a key institution in U.S. society that is effectively addressing this issue. Not only do donors pass on community colleges, one can make a convincing argument that they’re exacerbating inequality by funneling billions to elite and affluent universities that primarily serve well-off students. Rich schools get richer while community colleges continue to struggle. (Vox’s Dylan Matthews went so far as to call Bloomberg’s Hopkins gift a “tragedy.”)

Add it all up, and one can’t help but revert towards a more cynical explanation for the lack of support for community colleges—and, for that matter, trade schools and historically black universities. Mega-donors tend to live in exclusive and cloistered worlds. As a result, critics argue, they’re frequently out of step with issues facing many working-class Americans. This is why few funders recognized the true breadth of angst across Middle America that led to the Trump presidency and why, at least until recently, few have attempted to tackle the opioid crisis or the creeping threat of automation which threatens to decimate the blue-collar manufacturing industry.

The lackluster philanthropic support for community colleges suggests that while higher ed mega-donors intuitively know, on some level, that attending an elite school isn’t the only path to professional success, they can’t seem to bring themselves to fund a promising alternative that doesn’t fit their established—and often inaccurate—narrative.

Inside Higher Ed’sValbrun notes that CCC’s administrators are hoping Maureen Wilkens’ $5 million gift will inspire other potential donors to support community colleges. I expressed similar hopes on the heels of Alpert’s LAAC gift back in 2016. Maybe this time will be different, but I’m not holding my breath.

In the meantime, donors toying with the idea of supporting community colleges may want to consider the following advice from Santa Barbara City College Foundation’s Geoff Green: “It depends on how many students you want to reach” and “how life-changing you want to be.”

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