That Class Gift

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The senior class gift, a present from the members of one graduating class to the university itself, is often a little foolish. While senior gifts are sometimes used for scholarships or disaster relief, they’re more often used for useless projects. There are only so many engraved benches and Beaux Arts gates a university needs, right?

For this reason, and because tuition itself is now so high, seniors might want to just skip the gift. The school doesn’t really need more of their money yet.

Well unless you’re a student at Dartmouth or Cornell, where apparently students are really into gathering a lot of class gift money. According to a piece by Tom Scocca in Slate, “Dartmouth and Cornell singled out students by name for failing to donate money to the universities.”

The trouble in the case of Dartmouth was that the class of 1960 would throw in $100,000 if the class of 2010 could get everyone to participate (not that they all have jobs yet, but whatever).

As Scocca points out, the real bizarreness of this has to do with the way that class gifts aren’t even real money. As a result of the complicated, risky investment strategies employed by wealthy colleges, these schools gain and lose money orders of magnitude higher than some silly six-figure gift:

That hotly contested $100,000 represented 0.003 percent of Dartmouth’s $2.998 billion endowment. The $10,000 raised by the seniors themselves—60 percent of which was consumed by stipends paid to student fundraisers—would account for 0.001 percent of the $835 million that Dartmouth’s financial managers lost to market downturns in fiscal 2009, or a similarly tiny share of the endowment’s rebound in fiscal 2010.

At Cornell, the $80,000 raised by the senior class was 0.002 percent of the school’s $4.4 billion endowment, or 0.006 percent of the 1.4 billion the endowment lost in fiscal 2009.

More interestingly, however, the man responsible for losing that $1.4 billion, former Chief Investment Officer James Walsh, was paid $888,000 a year. That’s more than 11 times the amount of the 2010 class gift.

Given this, why anyone would feel compelled to give a gift back to the school is astounding. But then, maybe it’s not really about raising actual money now so much as it is about the ability to raise big money later on. As Rob Henry, who’s worked as a consultant on various class gift campaigns, explains: “The goal is not to raise money, but to begin a pattern of behavior.” [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer