The recent headlines surrounding an increased focus on reducing the cost of higher education through the Biden Administration’s American Families Plan, along with the launch of the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), have spiked curiosity among institutional leaders on how this could affect their overall fundraising strategy and donor messaging.

Private philanthropy is, and will remain, a crucial component of higher education institutions’ funding mix as it helps ensure overall access, excellence, sustainability, and growth. Philanthropy has historically complemented and accelerated government funding, allowing institutions to focus private dollars on ensuring student success through investment in programs, buildings, and people to help build the workforce of the future.

For years, private philanthropy has decreased barriers to educational access through scholarship support. Philanthropy, however, is so much more than scholarship dollars; it is a pipeline to innovation that allows institutions to implement bold new approaches that accelerate contributions to the social, technological, and economic growth of their communities. This steady revenue stream into scholarships, buildings, programs, and people allows institutions to fulfill their mission, regardless of what state and federal funding provide. And to be sure, these amounts fluctuate so while it might appear that the system is flush today, tomorrow might present a dramatically different view.

The foundation of successful fundraising is still based on the trusting, authentic, and respectful relationships you build with your board, your community, and your donors. Below are some high-level insights and key messages to consider when conveying the gap in funding and the continued need for private philanthropic support.

1. Unmet student need is greater than just the cost of tuition.

The total cost of attending college today goes far beyond yearly tuition. In addition to the cost of classes, students must factor in textbooks and school supplies, housing, food, transportation, and personal expenses. Students working full or part-time jobs in addition to attending school also have to calculate the benefits and trade-offs of earning an income to meet their financial needs while earning a degree or certificate to pursue the career of their choice.

The headline benefit of many public and government funding proposals is free or subsidized tuition, seemingly removing the need for student scholarships at two and four-year institutions. Advancement offices will be well-served to remind donors that philanthropy amplifies the work that government funders hope to accomplish by addressing the wraparound support that students need to be successful inside and outside the classroom.

It is important to acknowledge that a student’s timeline to completion can vastly vary, as many are balancing work, a family, and other personal responsibilities. Since institutions know their students’ needs best, scholarship dollars can be redirected to the most vulnerable community members or those who fall outside of public funding parameters, such as community college students enrolled in workforce training programs. In many cases, unmet need will still be a major challenge facing college students even with free or reduced tuition.

For one CCS higher education partner, the cost of tuition is a fraction of the total cost analysis facing the 60,000+ student body at the community college. Innovative scholarship funds and programs have been developed in recent years to creatively lower students’ financial burdens and are growing rapidly as donors see that need and impact clearly align with helping students achieve their academic goals. While having government funding absorb tuition fees would be a significant benefit to the students, transferring savings to another financial priority still doesn’t resolve the average unmet need of over $9,200 annually.

2. Share with donors the need to innovate and implement bold new strategies that will directly impact students.

Regardless of whether scholarship dollars are going to be as essential to future students as they have been to current and past students, the need to provide funding to stay up to date on emerging programming, technologies, and resources will remain crucial to ensure students are career ready and employable. Consider what the in-demand industries are in your region and what programs your institution has in place that directly funnel graduating students into these key industries. Are there programs that can and should be enhanced to better prepare graduating students for newly emerging industries? Continue to remind the donor about the role your institution plays in your community’s economic growth and share the success stories of your students.

3. Keep student stories front and center.

People connect with stories, and donors are no exception. We also know that people give to people. With every opportunity you have to get in front of a donor, whether that be announcing a new program, providing impact updates, or simply saying thank you, the act of including an individual student’s journey at your institution brings an irreplaceable human element to your work. Encourage students to go beyond the standard background information and share the hopes and dreams that lie ahead for them! Everyone loves to feel inspired by the next generation and the work your institution is doing to make their big dreams a reality.

4. Philanthropy can ensure long-term security of institutions.

Federal and state dollars fluctuate every year, usually with strict policies or timelines in place for specific spending requirements. Private philanthropy ensures flexibility and consistent resources are available well after federal dollars are spent. In light of this, consider the following forward-thinking opportunities:

  • Grow Your Endowment: Building your endowment by asking donors to leave a legacy that will allow for your institution to carry out your mission for current and future generations is a strong ask. By focusing on endowed gifts, you will show the community that you are thinking long-term and building an annual stream of income that can support the institution, its programs, and its students in perpetuity. The strength of your endowment also shows the financial health of your institution. The larger your endowment, the stronger you will be perceived as an institution.
  • Meet the Unexpected Needs of Students: As we experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic, new student obstacles emerged, and philanthropy created opportunities to solve those challenges. The higher education landscape is fluid, and the economy and other external influences change the arc of stories all the time. Through the flexibility and immediacy provided through private philanthropic dollars, emerging student needs can be addressed quickly and on an ad hoc basis. Private dollars allow institutions to put the student first, which ensures a stronger opportunity for successful outcomes.

Philanthropy is here to stay. While ambitious public funding proposals to support higher education institutions evolve over the coming months, we must all remain focused on cultivating the private funding sources that will sustain our work. We must continue to meet students’ needs and help them achieve their goals.

At the same time, being proactive and flexible with your messaging is necessary. The heightened focus on student support through greater public resources puts higher education institutions in a positive spotlight but also requires institutions to be thoughtful about communicating the value of scholarship support and private support for higher education needs more broadly. Communicating the well-known value proposition of your institution’s mission will ensure its future long after public dollars are spent.

About the Authors

Courtney Labetti, Executive Director at CCS Fundraising, brings a breadth of experience in higher education and nonprofit fundraising, specializing in major gift strategy development, comprehensive donor relations programs, corporate and foundation engagement, strategic marketing, and capital campaigns. Courtney holds the Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) credential. She earned her BA in Strategic Communications from Butler University and Masters in Marketing from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Anne Thomas, Executive Director at CCS Fundraising, brings nearly a decade of social impact and project management expertise to the CCS team. She advises clients in a wide range of sectors, including higher and secondary education, arts and culture, healthcare, and human services on capital, endowment, and comprehensive campaigns. Anne is a graduate of Elon University, where she earned her BA in Political Science.