We are in the midst of a great national debate on access to higher education and its cost. Is it fair that many people are saddled with student debt they may never be able to repay? Should the government step in to create affordable access to higher education or forgive loans for millions of graduates? Should employers absorb more of the responsibility for educating their future workforce? While we work toward answers to these questions, one fact is undeniable: Education is the great equalizer.
At Kean University, we see this to a much greater extent than many other institutions in America. Kean serves a significant number of low-income students and those who are the first in their families to attend college. In fact, U.S. News & World Report ranked Kean 46th out of 439 in Top Performers for Social Mobility among national universities. That means we help those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds succeed and graduate. Our students find success regardless of their backgrounds. Each one of them deserves the opportunity Kean offers to improve their own lives and the lives of their families.
The path to higher education should be free from obstacles and wide enough for all who wish to travel it. Without solving the problems of cost and access, it’s possible we could live in a country without a robust and diverse higher education sector. Can we really envision the prospect of an America without teaching, research, inventiveness and social mobility for which American higher education is synonymous?
At the same time, institutions of higher education need to have multiple paths to fund the cost of educating future generations. Education costs money, and we need a full and diverse set of funding resources. Government, private sector support and individual philanthropic giving are all part of the solution to the challenges students and families face around access and cost of securing a college degree.
Kean University is not unique in that we receive funding from private philanthropy. Over the last five years, more than 9,000 individual donors contributed over $22.2 million in support of Kean University. What these donors may not know is that their charitable investments in higher education are not merely a gift to an institution — they are a game-changer for future leaders who are pursuing a college degree to level the playing field, to pursue dreams and to overcome challenges that life has placed in front of them.
As CEO of the Kean University Foundation, I see firsthand the impact higher education has upon those who pursue it. We can all make a difference. America’s charities show why even small financial gifts can be part of having a big impact. Time, energy and talents have tremendous value.
Philanthropy is resilient and, during hard times, Americans respond in extraordinary ways. During the Great Recession, for instance, the S&P declined by roughly 40%. Over that same time, philanthropic giving dropped by only 7%. When there is a need, and people have the capacity to help, they respond generously.
Every gift — large and small — empowers our colleges and universities to further leverage their impact across the country and around the world. Each and every donor, volunteer and advocate makes an influential difference in strengthening educational leadership, advancing research initiatives, shaping policy decisions and helping students (regardless of their economic backgrounds). One of our wonderful students at Kean said it best:
“To my parents, who never gave up on me, thank you for instilling in me the importance of education. Obtaining this scholarship was the highlight of my college education. This scholarship was able to assist us financially, especially after moving due to unforeseen circumstances and having to pay medical bills for my mom’s surgery. It was hard, and not thinking about having to pay out of pocket for school was such a reliever. So, I thank everyone who helped me to achieve this huge accomplishment. You have no idea how much it helped.”
— Michelle Gomez, recipient of the Uma Dharapuram Scholarship for Women’s Studies
I would be remiss if I did not mention that acts of charity are also an investment in ourselves. Philanthropy can be life-changing for the donor(s). Arthur C. Brooks, one of the country’s leading policy experts and the president of the American Enterprise Institute, reminds us that, “It is a fact that givers are happier people than nongivers.”
Of course, philanthropy is about so much more than financial resources. Independent Sector reminds us that volunteers are critical assets to civil society and all of our communities, especially in light of COVID-19. In its newest Value of Volunteer Time report, Independent Sector, with the Do Good Institute, announced that the value of a volunteer hour is now estimated to be $31.80 — a 6.2% increase compared with 2021. Estimated from data collected in 2022, the figure illustrates the valuable and significant contributions volunteers make every day to support our communities and nation. At Kean University, board members, committee members and community volunteers contribute in so many ways.
In many respects, our charitable actions are simply reminding us what makes us human: taking care of each other and doing it as a group to create a bigger impact. By making a philanthropic gift to a college or university — whether it be your time, talent, treasure or willingness to introduce new friends to an institution, you are positively changing lives.
It has been said that philanthropy is an act of optimism. The act is an investment in a student, a member of the faculty, a vision, an organization. Philanthropy can help fortify the American higher education system by continuing to provide opportunities to our students, who will ultimately do the same for the next generation or create a better world for all of us.
Bill Miller is CEO of the Kean University Foundation.