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Pay It Forward? Soliciting Alumni Donations

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This essay originally appeared as a guest post on the blog White Picket Fence.

"I bought you some time," my father said as he hung up the house phone. "You have until Sunday."

It was a Wednesday evening and I just got in after an hour-long commute home from work. "Have until Sunday for what?" I asked.

"Until someone from your university calls back," he replied with nonchalance.

Last year, at 25 years old and three years removed from college, this had turned into a common occurrence at my house. A representative from my alma mater would call to ask for a donation, and I would, if possible, dodge any interaction with the person on the other end.

The calls began in early 2010, and coincided with my first student loan payment six months after graduation. This was the pre-determined time when Sallie Mae and the government decided I should have my professional life together. I was contacted by student workers at my state-related university call center that put in their work-study hours by soliciting donations from alumni. Like a youthful, friendly sounding debt collection agency, they'd make small talk and I'd anxiously oblige until the mention of making a "gift" to the school.

I had donated $10 right before graduation in May 2009 to my respective college, though mostly because there was a complimentary t-shirt involved. "I don't have the money right now," "try again in 2015," and the more desperate "she doesn't live here anymore," with me referring to myself in the second person didn't halt the calls like I expected it would.

When I was still in college, I dated someone who worked at a university call center. We once attended a party with his coworkers where they gathered around the kitchen counter with beers and swapped stories about, well, begging for money. At my own school, a classmate and call center employee wrote an article for the paper about being conflicted asking for donations. Graduates would lament to her about barely being above water financially, and one desperate parent pleaded with the writer to move into an apartment with her daughter who could no longer afford rent.

College tuition even at public schools, and especially in Pennsylvania, is not what most middle class families would call affordable. After credits from AP high school classes, earning grants and scholarships, and holding a part-time job, I still owed five figures for my education. I graduated with my BA and nabbed a gig in healthcare communications a year later, handling everything from editorial to exhibiting at nationwide conferences. Still, I wasn't making a lot -- even less so when a considerable chunk of my money went toward monthly student loan payments. To have call center employees request "gifts" from recent grads like me was fruitless.

I turned to Google for a remedy to the nagging phone calls. Per the responses I read, anything other than a firm "please don't call again" didn't seem to work.

So, I mentally prepared for the next time I saw the university name on the Caller ID. I wanted to end the phone calls, but not all communication (I liked having a link to the university and receiving my quarterly alumni magazine). I'd be nice, but direct, and ask the student fundraiser to no longer contact me (no longer contact me by phone. Damn, I really loved that alumni magazine).

Sunday came and went, and no one called. Then on Tuesday I walked into the door when the phone rang and saw that familiar name displayed. I answered and heard a young, polite female on the other end. As she rattled off pleasantries, I waited for a break in the conversation to interject that, while I loved showing my support for the school, I could not make a donation any time soon and to please take my number off the list. She complied and even seemed slightly amused by the tinge of nervousness in my voice as I made my request.

After a quick Internet search, I realized yearly tuition for in-state students went up by nearly $4,000 over the four years since I began in August 2005. Not to mention current borrowers across the country who now face doubled interest rates on their Stafford loans. A recent and particularly irritating fundraising campaign item arrived in the mail this past spring, which stated my alma mater left graduates in more debt than other area universities. Without any mention of cost control, all it read like to me was, "Gimme, gimme, gimme!"

The phone has stopped ringing, but the higher education spending spree has yet to cease. And unfortunately, I feel like any "gift" I could provide would go unappreciated. For now I'll keep my money where I can see it: in a bank account debited monthly by multiple student loan companies.