In addition to the stupidity of honorary degrees, another aspect of commencement and the events leading up to it that I despise is the practice of asking graduating seniors for money. During the president’s comments at commencement and both of the awards ceremonies I attended, he reminded students of the importance of “giving back” to their alma mater. (A similar parallel is the practice of asking faculty and staff to donate to a school’s yearly fundraising campaign.) I don’t care if these statements are gentle, joking, or desperate. They should not be made.
Beyond the fact that a (mythical) student paying full price would have just dropped upwards of $150,000 on a college education and the more realistic students who pay substantially less are typically financially strapped as it is, my view of comments like these is that they are much more likely to provoke bitterness among students and their parents than they are to highlight how important donations are to the school’s bottom line. My own approach would be to focus on giving students an exceptional college experience that they will look back on fondly, keep them connected to the college community after graduation through newsletters, alumni magazines, and social media, and wait a while before asking for money. Maybe the alumni newsletters and magazines can occasionally feature stories about the contributions of others to deliver the message that I watched my own school’s president deliver awkwardly on numerous occasions.
If we give students a positive experience and make them feel welcome and connected after graduation, they will want to donate. I’m sure that schools have data on when students start donating and how that is related to total donations over time, but I wonder how many people simply never donate because they were turned off by the force with which their alma mater asked for donations before they had even had a chance to get a job.