Education

Dialling for dollars

Cash-strapped schools turn to the private sector

VICTOR DWYER June 9 1997
Education

Dialling for dollars

Cash-strapped schools turn to the private sector

VICTOR DWYER June 9 1997

Dialling for dollars

Education

Cash-strapped schools turn to the private sector

For the University of Alberta, it was a handsome return on a minimal investment. Last month, working an evening shift for the Edmonton university’s fund-raising Student Calling Program, music major Kathy Dodds happened upon what she now describes as “an amazing batch of really generous people.” For four hours of work, Dodds took home a paycheque of $28. But her university banked considerably more—roughly 6,000 times more. In all, Dodds talked alumni into making $162,000 in gifts and pledges—the most ever raised by a student caller in a single shift. “My friends call me Chatty Kathy, and I admit I’m a pretty good talker,” says Dodds. “But people do seem more open than ever to helping out the university and its students.” Across the country, individuals and corporations are hauling out their chequebooks and prying open their wallets in a ritual that has sustained universities south of the border for decades. And their newfound generosity is having a profound effect on Canadian campuses—helping to establish funds for scholarships and bursaries, as well as new facilities, professorships and programs. Dodds’s efforts are part of a $ 144-million campaign, close to half of which will be earmarked for student aid. The drive had already raised $77 million, with quiet appeals to loyal graduates and local businesses, before its official launch date of April 2. In Halifax, Saint Mary’s University is heading into the home stretch of a five-year campaign

whose goal was to raise $12 million from private sources—but which has already surpassed the $14-million mark. Just two years into a $30-million campaign, the University of Saskatchewan has already surpassed that by more than $12 million.

In Ontario, meanwhile, universities are tallying up the totals donated to the wildly successful Ontario Student Opportunity Trust Fund. Launched last May by the province, which matched all gifts made over an 11-month period, the OSOTF has received pledges of more than $250 million for student aid. At the University of Toronto, currently undertaking the largest fundraising drive in Canadian university history, 33,000 individuals and corporations handed over $81 million, increasing annual scholarships and bursaries by $12 million. The University of Ottawa raised $8 million—when matched by the province, enough for 750 yearly $1,000 bursaries. In Sudbury, donors gave $5.5 million to Laurentian University.

The money is flowing in at a time when many students are sorely in need of help. Average tuition has soared 45 per cent in Canada over the past four years. In all, 40 per cent of students now borrow to make their way through university. And while their average debt upon graduation was $8,700 in 1994, it is expected to hit $25,000 next year. “Jobs are scarce, and expenses are now a lot higher,” says Hoops Harrison, director of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations. “That makes any help more important than ever.” But while universities are clearly happy to see endowments grow, some observers worry about the long-term effects of an increasing dependence on private gifts. For one thing, it is almost inevitable that older schools, and their students, enjoy a competitive edge. Last year, 176-year-old McGill in Montreal wrapped up a capital campaign that raised $208 million, a quarter of that for student aid and facilities. By contrast, the city’s Concordia University, founded in 1974, and with a student body about half that of McGill, is setting its sights at $55 million for a similar campaign to be launched this fall. “There’s no doubt that the demographics play into the hands of established schools,” says Concordia director of development Chris Hyde. “They have many more graduates who have met their major financial obligations in life.” Others fear that the arts will become the poor cousins of professional faculties. “Business, law and medicine always raise more,” argues Wayne Poirier, Ontario chairman of the Canadian Federation of Students. That is in part because their graduates tend to have more to give, while corporate donors have a vested interest in cultivating connections with students in more practical programs.

Still, one notably successful campaign over the past year has been at the School of Women’s Studies at York University in Toronto, set to open this fall. Home to the largest undergraduate women’s studies program in the world, as well as a graduate program and a centre for feminist research, the school has raised $1.2 million. “Our donors are very aware that women are the most vulnerable to loan cutbacks and rising tuition,” says acting chairwoman Janice Newton. “Those are exactly the issues we have fund-raised around.” Many universities say their biggest challenge now will be to battle donor fatigue. The risk will grow, they say, if governments use private largesse as an excuse to cut even more funding to public education. Soon after the deadline for donations to the recent Ontario campaign, the province tightened the rules of its student loan program—lowering the amount of wages, bursaries and scholarships students may earn before seeing their government loans downsized. “A coincidence?” asks student leader Poirier. “I don’t think so.” Says Concordia’s Hyde: “If donors feel all they are doing is letting governments off the hook, they are not going to be very keen to keep on giving.” Still, fund-raisers like Alberta’s Dodds remain confident that the mood of generosity will continue. “A lot of people ask why they should cover up for politicians who are cutting back,” says Dodds. “But if you let them know that they can really make a difference to the students out there, there is a determination to take a hard look at doing whatever they can.”

VICTOR DWYER