Harvard Giving Ends When Reject Letter Arrives

Oct. 27 (Bloomberg) — You know the stereotypes about college giving. Alums give after their school's marquee team, football or basketball, wins a conference championship. They give when there's a family connection to the school. They give when they want their child to get admitted. These assumptions are mostly correct.

But there's a lot more drama to the donor-college relationship. That's what scholars Jonathan Meer of Texas A & M and Harvey Rosen of Princeton reveal in a series of papers that make good reading for the college-obsessed.

The authors surveyed tens of thousands of instances of alumni giving between 1983 and 2007 at a highly selective private university they call Anon U. They tracked both frequency and quantity of giving.

We'll infer that Anon U is an Ivy League school or equivalent from the following facts. Some 28 percent of Anon U alumni went to private high school. At Anon U, alums' children are admitted at three times the rate of other children. Anon U started admitting women only in the 1960s. Anon U athletes fence and play water polo. Anon U has squash courts.

The nuances start with men. Male graduates indeed reach into their pockets at the news of an Anon U football or basketball championship. But they give even more when the specific team for which they themselves played in college wins a championship, even if the team plays an obscure sport, such as fencing. There are differences among the sports. Crew and lacrosse players give a lot.

Past Is Present

For men, it turns out, the past is still present. If your team was conference champion your sophomore year, you give about the same amount to the athletic program as the average athlete alum. If your team won your junior year, you give more. If your team took the prize your senior year, your lifetime giving is highest of all, about 8 percent higher per annum over decades than the giving of an athlete whose team didn't get the prize in the last year at school.

That lucky fellow whose team was conference champion junior and senior years gives the most among athletes. This suggests a deep need to re-experience the triumphs of youth.

Female athlete grads, by contrast, don't seem to get that nostalgia buzz. Their gifts don't correlate to their team's performance while they were at Anon.

When it comes to families in which more than one member attended Anon, the scholars found that "legacies," or grads whose parents, aunts and uncles attended the school before them, give more frequently than the average donor.

Children Matter

Children matter most to alumni. A person with a child at Anon is 20 percent more likely to give than another person with some other family connection. When a niece or nephew has attended Anon, giving increases as well. Men and women in these families give in similar patterns.

"Broadly, past generations matter a little bit, the current generation doesn't matter at all, and the future matters a lot," Meer writes. It all suggests that donors view children as investments.

And the burning child admission question? Here the authors' studies ranked donors by the frequency of their gifts. As soon as a child is born, an alum begins giving substantially more often than an alum with no child. Giving frequency stays high until the child reaches age 13. After that, about ninth grade, parents seem to divide their offspring into Anon candidates and kids without Anon in their future. Those parents whose child does eventually apply give more in the four years leading up to application year than those whose child in the end doesn't apply to Anon.

At Peace

Giving by applicants' parents peaks when the child turns 17, at which point parents are almost half again more likely to give than the childless. Those alumni whose teens never apply seem at peace: they just keep on giving steadily after their child goes elsewhere.

Not so households that experience the arrival of the dreaded thin envelope. After a first child is rejected, an alum parent gives substantially less often than before. And the disappointment builds. A few years out the parent's giving drops all the way to that of a childless alum. Those whose last child has been turned down by Anon U actually give less and in smaller amounts than the average alum. Harvard, you are dead to me.

Given such theatrics, it's hard to resist inquiring about the behavior of donors whose children get rejected the same year a school team wins a conference championship. Such a conundrum confronted plenty of Harvard alumni in 2008, 2007, 2004, and 2001, years when Harvard took the football crown.

That analysis isn't done yet, but Meer hypothesizes that child rejection wipes out sports satisfaction. You don't need a college degree to sense he's right.

(Amity Shlaes, senior fellow in economic history at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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