On June 8, the Chronicle of Higher Education [subscription required] carried a story about plans at the University of Colorado to implement a new funding scheme to support alumni activities.
Starting with this fall's freshman class, the university system's alumni association will be requiring students to pay a lifetime-membership fee of $70 when they enroll. Under the association's previous model, [alumni] were asked for $45 annually only after they graduated.
The story is quite brief and doesn't clearly explain how administrators arrived at this model. Obviously, charging students one more fee, using existing billing and payment systems, is an easy way to generate cash without the overhead of a dues program. Collecting association dues ordinarily requires staff members to track annual payments, generate renewal notices, and monitor the administration of benefits.
The alumni association's interim director, Ron Stump is quoted as saying that "students can know they won't be solicited for the rest of their lives." Maybe, but this assumes that it would ever occur to a student that they'd have to pay dues in the first place. I'm not sure it will feel like a favor when the fee gets tagged on to the tuition, the room, and the board plan. Most students may not even know they've "joined" anything – because they haven't.
Also, most students and many alumni don't know the difference between an alumni association and a development office or foundation. So there's some chance that alumni who thought they wouldn't be solicited "for the rest of their lives" may be confused (or even resentful) when they are asked to donate to the university later on.
Stump meanwhile says that the alumni association will work with the career center on campus "to help place students in jobs and internships with alumni." That's good, but that's also something every association should try to do, regardless of dues structure.
100% of the money will go to the association, and they can increase the amount in future years. So how much cash are we talking about? According to the school's web site, in 2007, 5,555 first year undergraduates enrolled. Under the new scheme, the association would garner almost $390,000 in "dues" with that size freshman class.
On its way to the bank, the association should be careful not to think they've solved the alumni network problem. They'll have generated cash flow, which is no mean feat in days of disappearing affinity revenues and shrinking support from general budgets and investment income. But I would dispute the claim by a student leader who says that this approach "builds a community." He further explains,
When you're setting foot on this campus, you're part of a huge alumni network. We're all Buffaloes together.
Every large institution has "a huge alumni network." What matters isn't whether it exists. What matters is whether alumni can activate the network and access its resources to fulfill their needs and solve their problems. And it takes more than dues money to accomplish that.
I'm curious to hear others' thoughts about this approach to funding alumni activities. Do the pros outweigh the cons?