Facing budget cuts, many public colleges are now trying to get alumni to increase contributions. The trouble is that budget cuts come from continuing economic problems, and the Great Recession is forcing public colleges, particularly those in the Northeast, to do some rather interesting things.

According to an article by Lisa Foderaro in the New York Times

The rush to catch up has placed public campuses in an awkward stance: cutting academic programs and instructors at the same time they are expanding development staffs and investing in a fund-raising infrastructure. And for some, the challenges run far deeper than honing their sales pitches.

The problem is that the culture is all wrong.

The reason public colleges require more alumni donations is because they’re not getting sufficient support from their states. But alumni don’t actually want to make up for gaps in state funding. Indeed, it turns out many of them don’t understand why they even have to. As Foderaro writes:

When the State University of New York at Geneseo surveyed its alumni three years ago as part of a plan to increase fund-raising, the initial response was heartening. Former students described their time there with words like “love” and “the best four years.” Then came what one administrator, Michael J. Catillaz, called “the cold shower.” Asked if they would donate, almost all said they thought the university was financed entirely by the state. The state’s contribution was actually 25 percent, and it has been dropping ever since.

If alumni contribute, they want to give in a special way.

Wealthy alumni of state universities might want to, say, give their alma mater a performing arts center. Then the school has a performing arts center. This makes a school seem impressive, in part because it now has something extra special, something it didn’t have before, and something the other state universities don’t have.

They don’t want to fill in for budget shortfalls. That’s just not that satisfying.

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