Until five years ago, Columbia was the only Ivy League University that didn't actively—and forcefully—ask its seniors to voluntarily donate to the school before they graduate. But since the Columbia College Senior Fund refocused its efforts in 2000, participation rates have increased substantially each year, from nine percent in 2000 to 75 percent in 2004.
The dramatic increase is widely seen as part of a larger change in culture and new emphasis on campus participation that has been taking place at Columbia for more than a decade.
About one-third of the current senior class has contributed so far this year. Organizers predict that participation for this year will eventually reach 76 percent.
Last year, the fund raised $14,781. Katie Conway, assistant director of Alumni Affairs for Student Development, said money raised by the fund goes toward financial aid, student affairs, the Core Curriculum, and the Dean's Initiatives.
Columbia has been accepting donations from seniors for years, but the program was largely dormant until 2000.
"It was not a significant agenda item for anyone," said Dean of Alumni Affairs and Development Derek Wittner. "It warranted much more nurturing."
According to Wittner, the decision to launch a more active Senior Fund in 2000 came out of a desire "to help educate young people about the notion that as they grow older in life, they have obligations, [just as] people before them have provided for them."
"It isn't about the dollars," he said, explaining that the Fund's main goal is to raise awareness of the importance of alumni donations and to get students in the habit of giving back.
But the increased attention to senior giving did not immediately produce high participation rates. Conway attributed the low initial participation to "lack of effort, lack of student investment, lack of focus."
Conway said that the dramatic increase came "because the students seemed engaged. They really took control."
She explained that much of the fund-raising efforts are done by a committee made up of 50 seniors, which conducts "dorm storms" in which members go door-to-door with information about the fund, holds phone-a-thons to solicit donations, and maintains a presence at most senior events.
Wittner added that, in addition to student efforts, improvements in the undergraduate experience at Columbia have played a significant part in encouraging participation in the Senior Fund.
"Overall, the attention that students have gotten from Columbia ... has made students feel a little bit better about the place," Wittner said. "If we can make the student experience as good as possible, the natural outcome is that students will feel the impulse to give."
Senior Class President Harmony Davis, CC '05, agreed, interpreting rapid increases in senior giving as indicative of rising levels of school spirit. She said that both the administration and the student council together, in addition to putting added emphasis on alumni giving as a way to increase financial aid, have made a "conscious effort to improve school spirit and make people feel like they're more a part of the school."
Student Body President Matthew Harrison, CC '05, also cited the improved undergraduate experience as one of the reasons for the recent success of the Senior Fund.
"Students here today don't seem nearly as alienated as the seniors I knew as a freshman and sophomore," he wrote in an e-mail, citing improvements in facilities, advising, activities, and services, and student council successes in building a sense of community.
Wittner said the decision to stress senior giving came in part from the realization that Columbia was lagging behind its peers at schools where alumni giving and student-alumni connections have historically been given more emphasis.
"You learn from the best practices of your peers," Wittner said. "What Princeton, Harvard, and Williams were doing was instructive for us."
"We're every bit as wonderful a university. We have warts. So does Princeton, so does Harvard. But in the end, we're getting a good education here," he said, adding that administrators looked at successful senior giving programs at other universities and asked themselves, "Why should Columbia be any different?"
Despite its relative youth, the Senior Fund's 75 percent participation rate places it second in the Ivy League. It is surpassed only by Yale, where 83 percent of seniors contributed to its Senior Giving Program last year. Princeton's Annual Giving program boasts an 87.8 percent participation rate, but that number represents individuals who have made pledges to give in the future rather than actual gifts.
Harvard's Senior Gift is the oldest such program. Established in 1965, its participation rate last year was 67 percent. Giving rates at other Ivies range from Yale's high rate to a rate in the mid-20 percent at Dartmouth.
Valerie Arboleda, CC '05, said she decided to give a $10 donation to the Senior Fund because, "I feel that Columbia has given me a lot in terms of my education. I can't give very much right now, but I would like to contribute to areas that I feel were lacking."
Kathryn Alexander, CC '05, said she was convinced to give $50 because, "One of my friends is on the committee."
Other students may be prompted to give by the committee's widespread pressure or by the reward of a mug.
Sunil Amin, CC '05, on the other hand, has not given and probably will not. "I think it's a little early to start asking for money," he said.
Cody Carr, CC '05, said he also probably won't donate because, "I don't have any money to give them."
Wittner emphasized that students who are skeptical about giving should consider that even their high tuition payments do not pay the full cost of their education. "The balance of that came from people who came before you," he said. "If you care about this place, you'll give back to the people who come after you."