Friday, October 31, 2008

Undergrads' Fundraising Is Reminiscent of Dickens

When Oliver Twist dared to ask for more porridge, the parish workhouse master swiftly reprimanded the lad for not being satisfied with the sustenance provided him.

Times have changed since Charles Dickens wrote of the plight of poor boys forced to work long hours at the parish workhouse for not much more than room, board and a taste of the three Rs.

Today, colleges and universities are the parish workhouses for our youth, though a lad or lass need not be poor to enter the campus barracks, for he or she will assuredly be on the debtor rolls when the experience ends -- if not as an outright debtor, then as an eternal taxpayer.

With the increasingly popular practice of using undergraduates to solicit funds, institutions of higher education have turned Dickens' masterpiece of institutional budgeting ridicule on its ear. The main sources of college operating funds -- grants, student loans, scholarships, charity and government revenue -- continue to fall short in the annual quest to balance college budgets that year to year outpace the general inflation rate.

Thus, more and more schools are employing students to staff the call centers or make road trips to stage dog-and-pony extravaganzas at alumni gatherings. The waif's message nonetheless is still the same: "More."

Oliver Twist's plea for more gruel is not a perfect analogy of today's youth asking for more institutional funding, but the comparison is lacking only in the sense that your alma mater's foundation board knows that a student's plea for charity from the community will receive a more sympathetic ear than will a cold call from a foundation staffer.

And the skeptic in me must ask whether the practice of having students call donors during the evening supper hours is more by sublime design than professional fundraisers might want to admit.

When it comes to donating money to colleges, I am an easy mark. I have never made a large donation (for the obvious reason), but I feel that my continuing support for academics and athletics is a necessary act of kindness if I expect the next generation to lead society onward and upward.

The college experience remains, I believe, the greatest test tube ever invented precisely because we cannot predict the results of the multitude of experiments known more familiarly as students.

Fundraising should be an ethical endeavor. In this regard, I strongly believe that the employment of undergraduates, whether they are paid a stipend or not, falls outside the ethical boundaries of fundraising. In my view, the practice of using student solicitors strains even the pleasant etiquette of panhandling.

It is quite one thing for alumni to promote their alma maters. After all, they have had years to reflect on the value of their college experience. To the contrary, undergraduates cannot know the value of the college experience because the experience is incomplete.

Did we not warn these students when they were children about the consequences of counting chicks before the eggs hatch? Are we somehow allowed to simply withdraw that sage advice in the interest of fundraising?

Our public school system is inadequate in preparing young people for today's job market. The associate or bachelor degree, then, is considered almost a necessity even though college degrees do not guarantee success in any endeavor.

Whereas in the past an apprentice would work for several years to gain journeyman credentials, modern society looks to college to prepare journeymen (and women). And, of course, college is still viewed as finishing school for the upwardly mobile. But woe be to the college failure -- the dropout.

We can debate whether "dropout" is still the stab in the back that colleges coined it to be, but it is worth noting that the first footnote on Bill Gates' Wikipedia page refers not to his birth but to his status as a 1975 Harvard dropout.

Whether colleges deliver the goods or not, their parchments have become cultural indentures. Thus, I argue: It is unethical to employ indentured servants, in this case students, as beggars.

I will give credit to college and university foundations for employing only the brightest students to make cold calls. These kids are polished, polite and know how to close the deal. When it is my time to receive a student's cold call from foundation headquarters, I often throw the caller a curve or two just to see how he or she responds. Let me just say that they keep their eyes on the prize.

For this reason, and out of respect for their individual soliciting skills, I have come to call these students artful dodgers, and to them I offer this as a compliment with my right hand. And with my left, I offer said same to the Fagins who employ them so cheaply.