Public colleges today face a daunting challenge: Persuading alumni that the schools they attended at little or no cost thanks to public dollars now need their financial support.
At colleges like mine, where tuition was once nonexistent or nominal and even books were free, and where graduates have had no tradition of giving, this requires a major shift in attitudes -- a cultural change, in fact.
The need to bring about this transformation is profound. As one educator put it, government belt-tightening is moving public colleges from state supported, to state assisted, to state located. Taxpayer dollars still keep the lights on, but to meet the complex demands of 21st century higher education -- to renew and expand our infrastructure, programs and facilities -- colleges must have strong private support.
Explaining this to alumni still steeped in the history of publicly funded higher education is not easy. For public college presidents, fundraising has become a full-time job on top of their full-time jobs.
During my 12 years as President of Hunter, leading a team that has raised more than $240 million for our college, I've come to realize that one of the most compelling messages we can convey to our alumni is this: Not only do your contributions help us pay for things we could not otherwise afford, they have more far-reaching effects.
Here's one example of the complex power of philanthropy. Last August, Hunter received the largest gift in our history, $25 million from Lee and Toby Cooperman, a husband and wife who met in a French class as students in the Class of 1964.
The immediate impact of their gift is twofold: $15 million will help modernize our main library (which will now bear their names). This gets us very close to finishing the $45 million renovation of our library into a modern facility dedicated to student success. That's a game --changer for a commuter college in the heart of Manhattan that lacks the kind of traditional campus where students mingle and make new friends. The new library will become just that -- a place where students learn, do research and create new relationships.
Second, $10 million will be used to create an endowment for scholarships that will generate revenues at a level and with a consistency we have never known before in our scholarship programs, another game-changer for a public college with no history of endowed scholarships at this level. The recipients will be students who would otherwise have to juggle jobs and studies, scattering their education over several years. Now they will be able to attend classes full-time, which both relieves their personal stress and lets them start their careers much sooner.
As someone who was once a college student from a financially challenged family, I deeply appreciate what these scholarships mean. I recall the anxiety of wondering if I would be able to scrape together the next year's tuition. Every award had a dramatic impact on my life.
In addition to all its direct benefits, the Coopermans' gift is invaluable because of the powerful messages it sends to key audiences.
Lee Cooperman is a value investor. He has a genius for identifying undervalued assets and putting money into them. Giving Hunter $25 million tells the world that our college is a value investment. All of us at Hunter knew that already because we offer a first-class education at a price working- and middle-class families can afford. Our tuition is just over $5,700, compared $40,000-plus at most private colleges.
But it is one thing for us to know this. It is quite another when one of Wall Street's most successful investors sends this message to the world. The reputational gain will be transformative, especially among friends and alumni of Hunter who are in a position to make their own contributions.
Finally, there is the impact on those who study in the new library -- the future Lee Coopermans. They'll see that the son of a Bronx plumber who attended Hunter for what he calls "the princely sum" of $24 a semester now has his name on the door. These students -- one perhaps the son of a janitor, another the daughter of a cab driver -- will have a living example of someone from a similar background whose education helped him achieve the American Dream and who has been so generous to the college that made his education possible.
The cultural change that is necessary to make donating the rule, not the exception at public college can be rooted in this perception -- when graduates realize how far their educations have brought them and recognize the value of giving back. This realization may ultimately be the most lasting and important benefit of philanthropy's complex power.