In Response to: The Giving Plea [6]

Responding to “The Giving Plea” (June 2023), I had a window into alumni fundraising this past year as an Annual Giving volunteer for 1998’s 25th reunion campaign. The University’s fundraising professionals helpfully armed us solicitors with fact sheets, messaging, outreach tips and memes to counter the forces that have deflated alumni participation in Annual Giving by 21 percent since our class graduated. Princeton’s campaign that just concluded failed again to inspire more than half of all alumni; only 47.5 percent of undergrad alums contributed.

Post-campaign, the fundraisers’ talking point that echoes with me acknowledges that a university with a $36 billion endowment can succeed without its graduates’ money: “Princeton is not needy,” we volunteers were encouraged to tell our reluctant classmates, “but it is worthy.”

“Worthy” implies two things here: 1) The University will use donors’ money to advance noble interests, and 2) while doing so, it will spend money efficiently. On Princeton’s first assertion, I have no doubt. The University’s impact is clear as a world-class research institution that is expanding college access and turning out graduates who serve humanity. The second assertion, however, merits interrogation.

If Princeton’s endowment at its last public tally were carved up among every undergrad and graduate student, each would be individually backed by more than $4 million. The University commits to spending 5% of the endowment’s value every year. That’s equivalent to $200,000 for each student on campus — without even one dollar from tuition, fundraising, or research grants.

Shouldn’t $200,000 annually cover a Princeton education?

Pooled together, $200,000 per student, per year, should be enough to pay professors $400,000 in salary and benefits and give each a teaching load of only four students — and a 300 square foot office to meet with them. There would still be ample funds for uniquely generous benefits for every student as well, including year-round rent on a one-bedroom apartment in the Princeton area, with utilities paid, a generous per diem for meals, books, technology, a $100 daily “resort fee” to cover campus activities and facilities, flights to and from home, health insurance, and a $500 per week summer stipend. And there would still be $11,000 a year, per student, to fund research labs, administration, and other costs. You can see this breakdown for yourself at [7] — along with my idea for an alternative to alumni giving that would “spread the wealth” to needy and worthy causes aligned with Princeton’s mission.

With all its wealth, could Princeton be the first top-tier university to go tuition-free? Seems like it could. Should it? That’s debatable. However, what is clear is that the University can continue to thrive without asking its alumni for money.