Can Young Alumni Help Close the Graduation Gap at Their Alma Maters?

In the last 10 years, the college completion agenda has defined both national and state policy discussions in American higher education. Notably, many colleges and universities have acknowledged the importance of increasing student access and completion rates. Higher education is the gateway to upward mobility, and one of the most serious challenges facing post secondary education is the number of low-income students leaving college before graduation.

Approximately 56 percent of students who start a four-year degree graduate within six years. At the same time, less than 30 percent of students who start two-year community colleges will graduate with their associate’s degree within three years. While there are many reasons students drop out (e.g., academic background, lack of interest in courses, psychological issues, an unfamiliar university environment), one of the biggest factors is the growing financial difficulties students experience.

Financial barriers are one of the greatest obstacles students face when applying to, and then staying enrolled, in college. This is especially true for many low-income, first-generation college students. Students from the lowest income group are far less likely to attain a bachelor’s degree in five years than those in the highest incomes group. Additionally, students from the lowest income group are more likely to borrow twice as much as students from the highest income group to fund their college education. Because college completion rates remain vastly unequal between public and private institutions, students from low-income and working class families attending public institutions are more likely to experience higher student loans and longer time-to-degree levels completion than those from affluent families. A drop out culture is bad for society because it widens the inequality gap between high and low-income families as well as the educational attainment and graduation rates.

How Can We Respond?

Faced with this reality, what can we do to improve college access and completion rates for our fellow students? I have two practical suggestions: 


Support Other College Students at Your Alma Mater

According to the most recent Eduventures’ Alumni Pulse research survey, which combines survey data with giving records for over 70,000 alumni, Millennials are far less likely to support K-12 and higher education institutions compared to their parents or grandparents. Specifically, the report argues that the rising student debt, the changing demographics of enrolled students, and questions about the value of a college education have resulted in far fewer alumni giving back to their alma maters than previous generations. Eduventures reports that the participation rate for undergraduate alumni is now less than 10 percent, five percent lower than a decade ago (see below).

Consequently, campus administrators must work to educate Millennials on how their gifts can shape college access and completion for low-income, first-generation students.  A good way to do this is to encourage engagement with affinity groups like class reunions and young alumni networks.  Furthermore, colleges and universities must encourage faculty members to engage potential alumni donors in their class, and educate them on how small gifts can support low-income and minority students through scholarships. If K-12 and higher education institutions want to benefit from young alumni charitable giving, then leaders must adjust their messaging to match young alumni habits. At the same time, young donors must be educated by fundraising professionals of how their gifts will impact their educational institution.

Join National and State Policy Organizations

Millennials should also become more involved in national state policy organizations that seek to advance and improve graduation rates in American higher education. Specifically, Christians can become members of national advocacy groups such as “The Bottom Line” or “National College Access Network” to engage with policymakers, researchers, and students at national conferences and summits. Comparatively, young Christians can make individual gifts to other national state policy organizations such as “Complete College America,” “Access to Success,” and “Boosting College Completion for a New Economy” to promote awareness of college access and completion challenges in higher education.


American colleges and universities can’t depend on federal or state aid alone to support low-income and minority students in completing a degree. Because higher education serves as both an engine of social mobility and economic growth, young Christians should take an active stand in eliminating educational inequity, and one way to do that is through giving back to their alma mater. Such action requires young Christians to remain bold with their financial assets, with the long-term goal of helping underserved peers achieve their goals. Needless to say, the role of young donors can dramatically shape future direction of American higher education so that all students - regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or gender – have equal opportunities to pursue a college degree necessary for social and upward mobility in American society.

-Roy Y. Chan is a Ph.D. candidate in Education Policy Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. His research focuses on the economic and non-economic benefits of a college degree, the globalization and internationalization of higher education, and the role of philanthropy and fundraising in shaping U.S. public higher education. Roy holds an M.A. in HIgher Education Administration from Boston College and a M.Ed. in International and Comparative and Global Studies in Education and Development from the University of Hong Kong. He can be reached via e-mail for comments at