What alumni donations can tell us about the relationship between students and their universities

What’s a better predictor of alumni philanthropy – high grades or students’ union engagement? Manuel Souto-Otero and Michael Donnelly have crunched the numbers

Manuel Souto-Otero is Professor of Education Policy at Cardiff University

Michael Donnelly is Professor of Education and Social Policy at the University of Bath

Donations are an increasingly important component of UK universities’ income, but there’s still a lot we can learn about philanthropic behaviour from alumni.

A recent CASE-More report shows that in spite of all the turbulence around us and mounting student debt, UK universities’ philanthropic income records were broken once again in 2022, reaching £1.5 billion – and alumni have a significant role in this.

With public funding for universities dropping to its lowest since the 1990s the importance of this income for the sector is clear. But benefits vary hugely between universities, and remain concentrated in a relatively small set of prestigious universities with Oxford and Cambridge accounting for close to half of the funds committed by donors over the last decade.

Our research shows that those universities seeking to boost their donation income should look to building students’ sense of connection with the institution – and in passing, we’d also like to suggest that canonical transactional accounts of higher education are too simplistic.

What’s my motivation?

What makes alumni more likely to donate? A cynical view of higher education – one that sees degrees as transactions between institutions and student-consumers – would suggest that students who receive better grades will be more willing to give something back to their alma maters.

But donations could also be motivated by other reasons, such as a sense of institutional identity, social engagement and emotional attachment. We set out to test this in our research.

We differentiated between what we termed “transactional contracts” – where students who receive better grades are more likely to donate – and “relational contracts” – where students donate more following engagement in social experiences through participation in student union activities and where they develop a shared institutional identity.

We then analysed data on donations from over 50,000 alumni from an English university over two decades, which contained detailed information on demographic characteristics of alumni (gender, age, geographic domicile), their qualifications (year of entry, type of qualification, degree class) and social engagement (participation in students’ union activities).

In all likelihood

We found that students with better degree outcomes – at any level of higher education – were indeed more likely to donate. For example, at undergraduate level, six per cent of those getting a third-class degree donated – compared to eight per cent of those achieving a 2:2, 11 per cent of those awarded a 2:1, and 13 per cent for those with a first-class degree.

However, differences in donation patterns related to levels of engagement in extracurricular activities were even more pronounced. The majority of graduates in our study were not involved in students’ union activities while at university (66 per cent), and only a small minority of alumni in this group donated (3.2 per cent).

But the more involvement a graduate had in students’ union activities while at university, the more likely they were to donate. Just under 10 per cent of those involved in one or two activities went on to make a donation, and the figure for those involved in three or more activities was a somewhat astonishing 22.6 per cent.

These results show that participation in extracurricular activities was much more strongly associated with making donations than the degree class obtained.

Statistically, the odds of graduates who had been involved in three or more activities donating were 5.6 times greater than those involved in no activities, while the odds of graduates with first class undergraduate degrees donating were 1.3 times greater than those with a third class degree.

Relationship education

Our research speaks to fundamental issues with prevalent transactional models of higher education – as in the canonical view of the student as consumer, where grades and credentials are a good to be purchased – and underlines the limitations of purely consumerist views of the relation between students and higher education institutions, even in the highly marketised UK context.

Grades are, after all, not everything students are after. This view highlights the importance of social participation, extracurricular activities, and social and emotional elements in higher education.

Our results suggest that students value the broader developmental and interpersonal aspects of higher education, not just grades and credentials. This “relational contract” with the university community persists long after graduation. Fostering communal life, peer interactions and expressive development should be central objectives, underpinning students’ connection to their universities.

One response to “What alumni donations can tell us about the relationship between students and their universities

  1. I find the results of your research unsurprising and in line with my own experience from my time at Manchester University in the late 1960s.

    However, your in depth analysis on social links seems to be based on only one University and your findings that Oxford and Cambridge had over 50% of donations (by value?) looks like a very small sample size.

    Might the level of wealth, high success to date, status and contacts of the parents of those starting their undergraduate lives at elite universities be a major factor.

    As you imply, the generally enjoyable life of an elite group of people, living closely together, experiencing new possibilities and freedom is likely to result in warm feelings towards their alma mater and fellow students. The continuing decades of success that followed graduation for most of those involved that involved donations could be viewed as a type of reciprosity.

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