The On-Campus Experience and Alumni Giving
David Broz and Vanessa Passini in Chicago, Education Design, Education Research, Education and Culture

Image © Gensler

At Gensler, we have spent the past few years researching student life on colleges and universities across the globe. And it has been quite interesting to see the impact the digital native generation has had on design implications for the spaces we create. We have found that technology, as opposed to completed space, is the biggest driver of campus change. This makes sense, considering new campuses must cater to the needs of students who stay online 24/7.

Yet while digital technology currently occupies a position of preeminence within the higher education system, there is and will continue to be a strong drive to harness the power of physical space. Community colleges, land grant universities, urban campuses, and yes, even online colleges realize that there is power in pulling people together for face-to-face, analogue interaction. Students, despite often belonging to more online communities than physical ones, are longing to find their physical place on campus. Unfortunately, they are often coming up short.

Face-to-face interactions that take place within college campuses build a kind of affinity that online interactions can only hint at. Regular, reoccurring interactions foment the creation of amazing memories and strong attachments. The power of such interactions has even lead us to wonder: Can positive, on-campus interactions affect long-term alumni giving?

In several conversations we’ve had with our clients and their alumni center representatives, we have heard time and time again that a student’s experience living in on-campus housing directly affects their rate of giving to their alma mater. Developing a method to quantify this increase is still in the early stages of development.

The idea that on-campus housing can increase alumni donations rekindles a topic that was raised in 2008 by Jonathan Meer and Harvey Rosen in their paper The Impact of Athletic Performance on Alumni Giving, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. One of the key findings was that “when a male graduate's former team wins its conference championship, his donations … increase by about 7 percent.” It is important to note that the giving rate is not only important because it is bringing money in the door; the giving rate is also one of the metrics used in ranking institutions by U.S. News & World Report.

Considering that a student’s on-campus housing experience can directly impact their engagement in alumni donations for years to come, which in turn can impact national rankings, shouldn't colleges and universities make a more concerted effort to improve the campus experience, particularly when it comes to housing?

At a major land grant institution, where students have a choice to live in large student residence hall towers or smaller two-story, 30-student scholar halls, there is a significantly higher alumni donation participation from the students who lived in the scholar halls than from the students who lived in the larger, seemingly less personal options. This seems to highlight the importance of the personal connections and relationships that develop in smaller residence hall settings, which in turn create a stronger connection to the university.

At Columbia College in Chicago, with the advent of college-provided student housing, 80% of freshman are now living on campus, (up from single digits a mere decade ago). Mark Kelly, Vice President of Student Affairs says the college “has seen a systemic shift of student’s experience on campus.” This explosion of an on-campus student population has forever changed the culture of the urban arts institution. “Surely the students living in close proximity to the thousands of cultural offerings in the city and within walking distance of their studios and classrooms plays an important part in their relationship to the campus and their long time affinity to the institution,” says Kelly.

A campus life strategy, as opposed to just a campus housing strategy, is a long-term approach for these academic institutions that is undoubtedly important to easing the pain of decreased funding. Colleges and universities should focus on creating spaces and cultivating experiences so that as their alumni enter the professional world, they will pay it forward to the next generation of students who walk through those same grassy quads decades later.

If anyone has uncovered research or statistics into relating college experience to alumni giving, please let us know. We believe that it would underscore the power of the campus in today’s digital world.

David Broz is very involved in his community, sitting on nearly a dozen not-for-profit boards and committees, ranging from "Placemaking in the Loop" to "Multicultural Scholars Program at the University of Kansas." A common thread runs through his work and his volunteer efforts: the desire to create great spaces to live, work, and play that respond to today's social and economic realities. Contact him at
Vanessa Passini is a strategic thinker and logistical Guru at Gensler. She brings a wide range of experience, including teaching, to the Education+Culture practice area at Gensler as co-leader of a multidisciplinary, firmwide research grant integrating expertise from the Product Design & Strategy groups to map current transitions in Student Housing. She blends a background in performance studies and pedagogical training in her approach to the project. Contact her at
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