Maya Gunaseharan spent her first year in college at American University, then transferred to Cornell. And that was after 12 years at a private school in New Jersey.

Now all three ask her to contribute money.

“I do feel a pull, because I had a really great first year at American,” said Gunaseharan, who is 24. “But I’ve seen a very clear return as a result of my degree from Cornell. So I absolutely feel the tension about who to give to.”

Universities and colleges are feeling it too. Already dealing with financial problems on many fronts, they’re worried that the large proportion of students transferring from one school to another will make it harder to solicit alumni donations.

Today, one-third of all students change schools at least once in five years, and a quarter at least twice, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, which tracks this. Of those who ultimately earn degrees, nearly a quarter finish somewhere other than where they started.


“What motivates alumni to give is a sense of loyalty, an indebtedness that ‘I am who I am because of my education,’ and a fondness for their time at an institution,” said Shaun Keister, vice chancellor for development and alumni relations at the University of California, Davis. “What we don’t know from this generation that jumps around a lot is: Are they ever going to have that warm and fuzzy feeling for the campus?”

That’s a $34 billion question — the annual amount of charitable donations to U.S. colleges and universities, according to the Council for Aid to Education, a nonprofit higher-education research organization that annually surveys universities and colleges about alumni and other giving.

Those contributions increased last year by a healthy 9 percent to the highest level ever. But within the otherwise glowing statistics was the one that is keeping alumni directors awake at night: The proportion of alumni who give is steadily declining, down from 13 percent in 2003 to less than 9 percent last year. Only because the rest donated more, on average, has the total risen to such high levels.

Those participation rates keep falling “even though we have more sophisticated programs, bigger programs, more options” to encourage alumni giving, said Brian Kish, senior vice president for central development at the University of Arizona Foundation. “Everyone is trying to figure out why. Every school is trying to buck that trend but we still see it going down.”

Keister, Kish and other alumni executives and consultants say the transfer phenomenon is one likely reason for this.

“We know the heartstring is attached to the purse string,” Kish said. “So let’s say you went to three different places undergrad, and then to grad school — because we have more people going to grad school, too. Now you’ve been to four schools. Where’s your love? Where’s your affinity? Where’s your passion?”

The problem isn’t likely to affect elite universities and colleges, whose students almost all graduate on time, and fewer of whom transfer, said Chris Marshall, vice president for alumni relations practice at the consulting firm Grenzebach Glier and Associates.

“It’s those mid-tier or lower-tier schools where that 25 percent” — the proportion of graduates who transfer — “is going to be hard to engage if they don’t have that four-year experience with some continuity,” Marshall said. “If kids are coming and going from these places, it’s going to be a lot harder to do that.”

Those alumni who do give seem to be choosing to support the university or college from which they received their degrees. Slightly more of them gave to those institutions than to others they attended along the way, the Council for Aid to Education reports. The participation rate is declining even for those graduates, however, said Ann Kaplan, who conducts the council’s annual fundraising survey.

Another source of worry: Community colleges, where many students start, are also beginning to go after financial contributions from their alumni. Most historically haven’t done this.

“It’s one more organization coming after the same pool of people,” Keister said. “There’s such a huge, huge percentage of students who transfer in from community colleges. So the question becomes: Where is the loyalty?”

Not necessarily with traditional universities and colleges any more, said Lawrence Henze, managing director of the fundraising technology company Blackbaud’s Target Analytics division.

“The consensus in the industry right now is that it’s harder to get people to engage when their route through higher education is less than traditional,” Henze said.

Nor have many university and college alumni offices reached out to transfer students while they’re still enrolled, as they often do with conventional freshmen.

“That probably is not happening as much as it ought to, quite candidly,” said Keister.

Gunaseharan, meanwhile, is mulling the requests for money she’s received from Cornell and American — which has another pull on her because her mother went there — but putting them aside while she plans to go to graduate school.

“I’m not really in a position to be giving loads to any of my alma maters,” she said. “I’m still saving money for the next degree.”

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

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Jon Marcus is a higher education editor at the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.