Coggins: Gift campaign goes for broke

As every member of the class of 2010 knows, we are in the midst of the three-week-long senior class gift campaign, in which seniors are implored to give money to Yale to celebrate our class and our time here.

That’s a shame; Yale would be a better place if it scrapped the venture.

I’m not writing to discourage those who can afford to donate. Even with its many flaws, Yale is probably still a pretty good cause, and it is, in some sense, ours. Students with money to give could do worse.

But the SCG rests on a premise that all seniors should donate now. According to an e-mail sent last week to the entire class, the campaign’s goal is to collect donations of at least five dollars from “each and every graduating senior.”

The rhetoric is backed by incentives. The SCG Web site tells us that alumni donors will award a $10,000 scholarship to an incoming freshman in the residential college with the highest participation rate. Moreover, an “anonymous donor” has offered to double the amount of the entire class gift if the schoolwide participation rate exceeds 89 percent — the 2009 record.

In the midst of such moneyed enthusiasm, we would do well to ask ourselves why anyone should ever want 90 percent or more of seniors to donate. Hard as it is for some of our classmates to understand, many of us have little or no money — any amount I might contribute would come straight from the loan I took out last month.

Proponents of the SCG argue that donating, even in small amounts, allows students to show gratitude and take ownership of the Yale idea, but if one must donate to be recognized as an active and appreciative member of the community, it follows that those with more to give have an advantage.

When lower- and middle-class students decide to come to Yale, they do so on the assurance that they will feel no less at home than their wealthier classmates. This assurance is part of a smart deal Yale makes to attract the best applicants and to ensure a highly marketable socioeconomically diverse student body.

Yale takes commendable steps to follow through on this promise, with numerous summer fellowships, subsidized recreational activities and a good financial aid program (though not good enough until we eliminate the unequal burden of the self-help requirement).

But this school is still an exceptionally difficult setting in which not to have money.

Class problems shape deeply the lived experience of many of us here. Do I pitch in for a suitemate’s birthday cake if it means cutting my bank account balance in half? What do I do between work-study paychecks when my glasses break or my computer crashes?

These difficulties are compounded by the feeling that one’s peer group does not understand or relate to them. At most universities, number-crunching is an expected and universal part of student life. At Yale, this is glaringly not the case. Fifty percent of students are on financial aid; the other half can afford to spend $50,000 a year (or much, much more, in many cases) to go to school.

In this light, what makes the SCG particularly offensive is its savvy manipulation of peer-group enthusiasm, redirected from the familiar spirit-building channels of intramural sports and extracurricular activities.

According to the SCG Web site, the Development Office has designated 138 SCG volunteers among the class of 2010. That means one in every 10 seniors has been charged with convincing her classmates to give to Yale, right now.

I trust that my classmates who have volunteered mean well. But for students on tight budgets, having groups of friends, some of them significantly better off than we, apply polite but pointed pressure on us to cough up even more cash is stressful. So are the mass e-mails, cocktail hours, T-shirt designs and elaborate videos created to encourage us to give.

I could find five dollars to donate, but what sense does it make for me, as a current undergraduate in debt, to give to the Yale pot, where my gift would be shared with students who need it much less than I?

Furthermore, why give to a campaign so insensitive to struggling seniors? I’d much rather attend a Yale more welcoming to disadvantaged students than one with a higher undergraduate giving percentage. And no pitch from the Development Office is going to convince me that collecting five dollars from every poor senior will help accomplish the former.

Of course, the real reason for the SCG’s focus on participation rates is to prime the pump for future donations. Students who give as seniors are more likely to donate later in life. But the Development Office has forgotten that, as students, very few of us have had the chance to earn money ourselves.

I suspect that one day the current SCG campaign will be remembered for what it is: a relic of lingering classism at Yale. But, for now, if there is going to be a gift campaign, it must curb its ambitions or else continue to poison class relations at Yale. Give if you can: That’s the most we should ask of each other.

Chandler Coggins is a senior in Davenport College.

Comments