Donating to colleges on “Giving Tuesday” is a great idea, and a growing trend.  In fact, such gifts were up six percent in 2017 over the previous year.  But if you do plan to give money to a college, don’t give it to one of the “usual suspects,” the same schools which are loaded with endowment dollars, yet charge students a bundle to still go there.  Give it to one of those schools where they invest heavily in student education, as opposed to non-academic infrastructure.

MarketWatch cited a report from the Council for Aid to Education, revealing that nearly one in three dollars donated goes to just 20 colleges.  And there are an estimated 5,300 institutions of higher education, according to a 2015 article published by The Washington Post.

Of course, this list of 20 include a lot of prestigious Ivy League schools and other big-name colleges, along with a number of state universities.  The top ones on the list include Harvard, Stanford, Cornell, M.I.T., USC, Johns Hopkins, Penn, Columbia, Yale, Duke, Notre Dame, Chicago and NYU, as well as state schools like Washington, Michigan, Berkeley, UCLA, UC-San Francisco, Ohio State and Indiana.  Most of these institutions are already loaded.  The rich are getting richer.

At the same time, a series of small liberal arts colleges with church ties are closing their doors, while other state schools are slashing programs and professors, and online colleges are closing campuses.  Some very deserving institutions are being overlooked, more for the lack of a good P.R. programs (which the wealthier schools can afford, and use to their benefit).  It hardly seems helpful.

#GIVINGTUESDAYPerhaps this year, would-be donors to higher education can spread the wealth around, putting it to where their dollars can be maximized for the greatest effectiveness.  Here’s what I would recommend, if you are thinking about opening up your checkbook for a college.

First, think about what is the money going to go for.  Sure a name on a piece of infrastructure looks nice.  I think anyone who donates deserves to have their names enshrined somewhere on a college campus.  It’s the least a school can do.  But have it on something that’s connected to the learning process, like a program.  Your name can go on the building hosting it.  But don’t have it on some “lazy river” or one of those gaudy distractions from studying.  Have it tied to the education process.

Second, go beyond the traditional top 20 rankings when looking at where to donate.  If you think about it, will your money be better appreciated at a school already on the mountaintop, or one climbing to get there?  Look at those rankings of value schools, or colleges in your region striving serve more than just the most financially-comfortable students in the country.  How many of those students at that college you’re looking at helping are Pell-eligible, meaning those who need financial help to complete that degree.  Georgia State University is one of those programs which is converting hard-luck students into success stories, and their leadership team has been recognized nationwide for doing so.

Third, and most important, find ways to serve those students who serve others.  You’ve probably heard about hungry college students, trying to make the grade while looking for their next meal.  So students like Hannah Mow with Colorado State University have sought to make a difference with the program “Rams Against Hunger,” connecting local Food Banks with needy collegians.

And there are also students in campus programs who are using their talents to help the local community.  One of my students at LaGrange College, political science major Nick Rawls, did just that.  He and his fellow students, campus leaders in a program called “Servant Scholars,” heard about the “Little Free Pantry” idea, and sought to pitch it to the local government.

“You’d love it, Dr. Tures,” Rawls animatedly told me about his big presentation before the LaGrange City Council.  “We used scientific research and data to back up our arguments, just like in class!” said this Division III Football player, who was the lead presenter.  At a time when small communities across the country were banning this helpful idea, the local government approved the college students’ proposal.  And among these wooden boxes of goods throughout the town, there’s one on campus in case a student on campus struggles to make ends meet.

Rawls, who also presented at academic conferences and even had a chance to work the Super Bowl in Minneapolis with his Sports Management Professor, landed a job with the Atlanta Falcons.  You can now find him as a Senior Account Executive with the Georgia Swarm, Atlanta’s lacrosse team.

Rawls and his fellow Servant Scholars are able to help with local anti-poverty programs thanks to a generous donation from Atlanta business leader Jerry Wilkinson.  There’s a sign in front of the building that houses these dynamic students which displays the name “Wilkinson Family Servant Scholars Program,” to show who helps these helpful students.

Rice University in Houston, Texas, is another school worth a look. I attended a presentation by their professors as they demonstrated their sophisticated program that connects students with a series of servant learning clients to connect their classroom experience in the service of the community.  It’s a major reason why the school has a strong ROI (Return on Investment) nationwide.  Other schools with an ROI as good as those schools who dominate in donations include Washington & Lee, Lehigh University, Washington University of St. Louis, and Tufts.

Whether it’s a public college like Georgia State University or Colorado State University, or a private college like Rice, other ROI schools, and even our institution which offer good value while helping the community, don’t follow the herd on donations on #GivingTuesday.  Give where the dollars are needed, and can have the biggest bang for the buck.

Editor's Mea Culpa: The posting of this story was delayed by my negligence and dependence on automation (our notification plugin failed to alert me it was in the queue). To John I say, I am terribly sorry and I will work to do better. To our readers, I have failed you, but you still have time to make contributions. To those donor organizations and the people they serve, I am so deeply sorry and hope that the generosity of readers will make up for my malfeasance.  
John A. Tures

John A. Tures

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia. He can be reached at [email protected]. His Twitter account is JohnTures2.