I’ve spent much of my Yale career thinking about money, what it can do and the problems it causes. I’ve learned that the culture surrounding giving and receiving money is often more important in the long run than the money itself. I say all this because I’m a senior who’s thinking about whether, and how much, to give to the Senior Class Gift (SCG). For those of you who aren’t familiar with the SCG, it’s a pot of money to which all seniors are highly encouraged to contribute. Agents from each residential college are selected to increase participation within their college, and the colleges often go head-to-head to see who can put together the most money. Each year, the goal is to reach a higher percentage of senior participation, and to raise more money than previous years. Senior Gift Agents are rewarded for their labor with a boozy party hosted exclusively for them, and the percentage of senior participation is usually published in the News.
Despite my concern about the implication of some of these policies, I can’t disagree with the explanations behind the SCG: Yale is expensive, and our tuition doesn’t cover the full cost of our education (apparently what we pay only covers half of the actual expense of a Yale education, according to last year’s SCG website). Cultivating a culture of giving back to Yale behooves the university financially, as Yale has to live in large part off of alumni gifts. Furthermore, the SCG has become an opportunity for Yale to raise money from parents and other donors, who match student gifts with donations that tend to be many times larger than those given by the senior class.
While all of this makes sense, and my gratitude for the opportunities I’ve received at Yale makes me want to contribute to the SCG to support the education of future generations of Yalies, I can’t condone what the SCG has become: an excuse for self-congratulation that often seems alienating and fails to promote the spirit of gratitude necessary for giving real gifts. Agents harass their friends for money; rich parents are asked to pony up. A sum of cash becomes the symbol of how much you valued your Yale experience, and suggests whether you are supportive of future generations. Money is important, but its symbolic function is far more limited than the SCG makes it appear: It can’t quantify gratitude, and it is only one measurement of how much an individual wants to support Yale education in the future.
Yale needs to rethink its SCG, by re-evaluating how competition-focused it’s become and allowing students to tailor the experience of giving to their own priorities. Everyone at Yale has experienced parts of the university that they’ve loved and parts they’ve loathed: It seems absurd to give money to one of six general fundraising areas without having any real control over what the money will do in the future. Personally, I have individuals and organizations that I’d like to recognize, and others I would hate to support. The current SCG parameters don’t allow me to customize my gift to reflect where I think the money should be spent.
Instead of focusing the SCG on competition between colleges and classes, or targeting students who for the most part can’t afford to give generously (the $31,000 total raised by the class of 2012 reflects this), Yale should give students the option of donating their time in lieu of straight cash. For every hour a student works on a SCG-designated project, have a private donor, a foundation or even the student herself donate the equivalent of the Yale hourly wage she would have been paid to the SCG. Students who want to be very specific about the part of Yale they contribute to should be able to do so, and the University will benefit twice: once from the money that the seniors’ labor accrues, and again from the actual work that the students accomplish. Instead of a guilt-wracked responsibility to give and get away, the SCG could become an opportunity for Yale to cultivate a culture of reflection, and to promote giving energy and time rather than just money.
If Yale doesn’t change its SCG policy, or give me and my classmates more ability to control how our gifts would be spent, I will continue to struggle with whether and how much to give. Whatever I give may do good, but I won’t feel good about giving it — and that feeling would certainly inform whether and how much I choose to give again.
Zoe Mercer-Golden is a senior in Davenport College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .