Updated August 2021. Originally published on October 16, 2019.
Community colleges serve 41% of all undergraduates in the United States, yet just 1.5% of dollars raised in higher ed go to two-year institutions, according to the Council for Aid to Education.
But that might be starting to change.
In recent years, two-year colleges have begun attracting the attention of private, wealthy donors. And although major gifts to community colleges are still typically much smaller than major gifts to four-year universities (there hasn’t been a single nine-figure donation to a community college to date), they are growing in frequency and size.
In fact, in 2018, community colleges received a total $53.1 million in major gifts (with each gift consisting of $1 million or more), compared to a single donation of $2.5 million a decade ago. By May of 2019, donors had already pledged $27 million to community colleges. And earlier this summer, philanthropist and writer MacKenzie Scott made headlines for her more than $2.73 billion donation to dozens of colleges advancing access to underrepresented students, including several two-year colleges.
So what accounts for this rise in community college donations?
First, donors have taken notice of students’ growing interest in two-year college. Two-year colleges have become an increasingly attractive option for students seeking credentials or skills training to improve their economic outcomes, especially as tuition costs at four-year colleges continue to soar.
“At two separate community college campuses that I visited this summer, presidents told me that they had recently received the largest-ever donations to their institutions,” explained EAB consultant Larisa Hussak in 2019.
“In many ways, we see this trend as reflecting the strong public perception that community colleges continue to enjoy. When it comes to expanding access to higher education and preparing students for the workforce, community colleges can make an outsized impact,” adds Hussak. “Increasingly, community and philanthropic organizations are recognizing that fact through their growing financial support.”
Plus, as state funding for community colleges continues to dwindle, community college leaders have begun focusing on fundraising and capturing the attention of private donors.
“Historically community colleges have been humble in their ask for donations,” according to research from EAB’s Community College Executive Forum. “But as state appropriations and enrollment declines persist, this fundraising humility is becoming less viable.”
But donors aren’t necessarily motivated by state disinvestment, notes John L. Cox, president of Cape Cod Community College (CCCC). In his doctoral dissertation from George Washington University, Cox suggests that donors don’t give to offset funding cuts; they give simply because they want to.
One such donor is Maureen Wilkens, a philanthropist in the Cape Cod area who recently provided CCCC with a multi-million dollar gift. “The college is a hidden gem and offers local students an excellent and affordable education,” says Wilkens. “The faculty and students deserve this, and our local economy will benefit from it with a well-educated workforce.”
Like many private donors, Wilkens didn’t attend the community college she donated to. Instead, she donated to expand access to higher ed and create economic opportunity for individuals in her community.
“In a way, [these donations are] a certain recognition by someone who lives in the community of the need to be committed to the teaching and learning of others around us,” says Cox.
In addition to benefitting their communities long-term, many private donors are also interested in donating to community colleges because they don’t have to worry that their gifts will get “lost in the mix of a $39 billion endowment,” says Cox.
In fact, major gifts aren’t typically given to grow community colleges’ endowments, but instead to support capital improvement initiatives, including renovation and construction projects on campus that directly serve students.
In other words, donations to community colleges can have an arguably larger and more immediate impact on students.
For instance, Wilkens’s recent gift will go towards constructing a new science and engineering building on CCCC’s campus, a project the college has been hoping to undertake for a long time, says Cox. Similarly, Arapahoe Community College, which recently received a multi-million dollar gift from Denver banker Donald Strum, will use its donation to build new educational and workforce programs in a variety of fields.
“Our student support programs are 100 percent funded by the private support that we get,” says Geoff Green, chief executive officer of the Santa Barbara City College Foundation and a board member of the Network of California Community College Foundations. “Whether it’s extra tutoring, or emergency rent funds, or to help students enroll and to stay enrolled and to succeed, it’s very often funded through philanthropy.”
Still, the lack of bureaucracy within community colleges that attracts many wealthy donors is also what makes it more difficult for community colleges to fundraise—and compete with four-year institutions for the attention of private donors, notes Green.
“There’s a sexiness factor to a high-profile research institution, whereas a local or regional college doesn’t offer that high-profile recognition for the donor,” says Green.
Green adds that to compete with four-year institutions, community college leaders must understand the importance of foundations in helping establish or elevate their institution’s profile in the eyes of potential donors. “The Ivies figured this out 100 years ago,” he says. “The big four-year colleges developed their fund-raising in the last 20 to 30 years. For community colleges, it’s more like last Tuesday.”