Donors Call the Shots: The Evolving State of Higher Education by Elizabeth Thompson

Opinions on the value of higher education continue to evolve in an increasingly polarized political climate in the U.S., but when it comes to the direction of our colleges and universities, there is one issue that has bipartisan support.

A 2018 Pew Research Center poll revealed that six-in-ten Americans (61%) say the higher education system in the United States is “generally going in the wrong direction,” but Republicans and Democrats differ over why they think this is the case. For Democrats, rising tuition costs is their top concern. For Republicans, a concern that left-wing political ideology is stifling free speech in the classroom ranks as high on the list. Democrats have introduced legislation to address these rising costs – America’s College Promise Act, the Debt-Free College Act, and the College for All Act. Republicans have taken legislative action as well – introducing legislation “punishing colleges and universities for violating free speech and academic freedom.”  

Over the last decade, Republicans over 65+ have pushed their concerns over the “left- agenda” in college classrooms as the major issue facing conservative college students today. 96% of Republicans aged 65+ cited this as their greatest concern, compared to only 58% of Republicans ages 18-34. While college-aged students and recent graduates are the authority on the current classroom experience, older conservatives hold the purse strings, and therefore the power in higher education.

 According to the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), total giving to colleges and universities in the United States came to $52.9 billion for fiscal year 2021. That’s up from $49.50 billion in 2020. Foundations (33.1%) and alumni (23.2%) were the leading contributors, accounting for a combined 56.3% of all reported gifts. So, while skepticism on the direction of colleges and universities is prevalent on the left and the right, donors are still giving at record highs to these institutions. These numbers represent an overwhelmingly older, whiter, and male demographic of donors.

With a growing presence of diversity and equity programs and initiatives on campuses across the nation has come an equally fierce opposition in the form of alumni-based “free speech alliances” meant to protect what are often conservative views deemed prejudiced or biased against people from underrepresented and marginalized backgrounds. These alumni groups band together to pull their financial support from institutions they believe are “caving to wokeness” – a dog whistle for critical and necessary discussions of U.S. history as it relates to traditionally oppressed groups. 

It is more important now than ever to understand the impact of these polling trends on alumni giving and the power of disgruntled alumni to disrupt the financial health of an institution. The pressure to appease wealthy conservative alumni donors and groups like the MIT Free Speech Alliance and Washington and Lee’s The Generals Redoubt turn development offices into battlegrounds for the competing priorities of DEI, fundraising, and alumni engagement. Donor accountability and fundraising data transparency to an independent body at colleges and universities is one potential solution to the power some of the wealthiest donors are wielding on campuses across the nation. Not all charity is benevolent, and we must ask ourselves, at what cost are we willing to sacrifice inclusivity?

Elizabeth (she/her) is a Creole- Ghanaian writer and educational equity researcher residing in Washington D.C. and editor of Mixed Mag’s Advocacy & Politics section. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in organizational leadership with a focus on inclusive practices for alumni engagement at private institutions.

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