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Private Contributions to Colleges Suffer Greatest Decline in 50 Years

February 23, 2010

Total charitable contributions to colleges and universities in the United States declined 11.9 percent, from approximately $31.6 billion $27.8 billion, according to results of the annual Voluntary Support of Education (VSE) survey by the Council for Aid to Education (CAE). According to the CAE, the decline in contributions was expected given the recent economic conditions. But Ann E. Kaplan, director of the VSE survey, is still optimist about the future. Kaplan stated, "Charitable contributions to education institutions facilitate the objectives of both donors and institutions in a relationship that has endured through a variety of economic circumstances. Historical patterns indicate that as the economy recovers, contributions will rise again."

Alumni contributions are typically the largest source of contributions. Typically, these donations make up for roughly a quarter of the total giving amount, and in recent years, the total amount of alumni giving had been rising. In 2009, however, alumni giving fell to $7.1 billion from $8.7 billion the year before. The average alumni gift shrank by 13.8 percent. The VSE survey also recorded the lowest level of alumni participation in annual giving campaigns in the survey's history (just 10 percent of alumni donated to their alma maters).

In 2009, foundation giving became a more significant source of charitable support for higher education institutions. Foundations provided nearly 30 percent of charitable contributions, the single largest source of support. Just under one-third (31.1 percent) of foundation giving reported on the VSE is from family foundations (individuals, including alumni and other friends). However, family foundations' support to higher education has declined 5.6 percentage points since 2004, a further indication of the effects of the sluggish economy on personal giving in 2009.

The results of the survey, along with a full analysis of the trends, will be published in spring 2010. Voluntary Support of Education, 2009 can be pre-ordered at or by calling 212-217-0878. Price: $100 ($65 for survey respondents).