“This year I gave only $1 to Brown.” Last week, three people said this to me.  Well, to be exact, one said, “only $10 to Princeton” and another “only $100 to Harvard.” But you get the idea.

All three have given millions to these institutions in the past. All three are infuriated by what is happening on campuses across the country. All three sought my approval for their pointedly small gifts.

They do not have my approval. The amount of money they should give is zero. Not $1, like Harvard alumna Tally Zingher, who plans to join “hundreds of other former students in a symbolic protest,” but $0. I made this argument last December, and reiterate it now at the end of a year in which public confidence in higher education understandably has hit a new low.

Colleges and universities, like other nonprofit organizations, care not only about how much they receive in donations but also about how many people donate. These institutions express great pride (or, sometimes, consternation) in the percentage of alumni who contribute money and, at the fanciest institutions, have an army of employees and volunteers working year-round to get as many people as possible onboard.

Take Princeton, which historically has had by far the country’s most loyal alumni. Today, many are unhappy with the university and are withholding donations. One reason explored in a long article in June’s Princeton Alumni Weekly is “politics,” on both the Left and the Right. Some alumni are so concerned about the state of free expression on campus—read the report by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) on Princeton for an illustration of the problem—that they launched a 501(c)(3) to defend the speech rights of students and faculty.

Still, Princeton continues to rake in cash. When I joined the Princeton faculty in 1998, 60.2 percent of undergraduate alumni donated, to the tune of $31.4 million. Just ten years ago, in 2013, 61.1 percent of alumni donated, for a total of $57 million. But by the time I left, in 2022, the second number continued to skyrocket, while the first was down substantially: $81.8 million raised, but only 47.4 percent participation. (By the way, the $81.8 million figure comes from “Annual Giving” alone. As President Christopher Eisgruber proudly noted in his 2023 “State of the University” letter, Princeton in fact received an extraordinary $551.9 million in gifts: “the highest one-year fundraising total in [its] history.”) This past year, 47.5 percent of undergraduate alumni donated a total of $73.8 million.

Princeton’s situation is in keeping with broader trends across the country. Americans have been tightening their charitable purse strings in recent years, with individuals contributing ever less of their disposable income to social and cultural institutions (only 1.7 percent in 2022, down from 2.4 percent in 2005), even as the total number of dollars donated rises.

Where, then, is the increase coming from? Josh Birkholz, CEO of the fundraising consulting firm BWF, suggests that it’s from the wealthy. Indeed, one study notes that “86 percent of affluent households maintained or increased their giving” from 2021 to 2022. Along the same lines, corporations and foundations also are giving more.

But especially since October 7, major Ivy League donors, above all to Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, have said that they will take their hundreds of millions elsewhere. Good—and it should be every last dollar, every last cent.

These generous benefactors might send their money instead to educational institutions, from nursery schools on up, that have not succumbed to the madness of the age and that typically do not boast substantial endowments. Or they might support any number of organizations connected to academia that are doing good, such as the Academic Freedom Alliance and FIRE.

The rest of us should take our money to these other organizations as well. Every last dollar, every last cent. Because while Harvard, Princeton, or Brown might care if a billionaire’s donation drops from $10 million to $10, it certainly won’t care if your donation drops from $1,000 to $1. The greatest benefit an elite university derives from your check is simply the fact that you give at all.

What is needed next, in other words, is a general revolt: ordinary people must stop giving, too.

Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images


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