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Seeking donations, public colleges turn to students

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Leon Harris pays for his education at the University of Alabama on his own. He is drowning in student loans, he is between jobs, and his dorm room just got more expensive.

But on a recent afternoon during a break at the student center, the sophomore sat facing a banner that asked him to donate money to a new student capital campaign. The university wants each of its 21,000 students to give at least $2 toward a scholarship for someone who will be the first in his or her family to go to college.

''I don't have any money to give," said Harris, who is from Montgomery. ''I give them a lot of money already."

Public universities traditionally have not solicited their undergraduates for donations; Alabama has not asked since 1922. But faced with state budget cuts and the need to remain competitive, schools across the country are beginning to focus on students as young as freshmen and sophomores as prime targets for fund-raising campaigns.

At California State Polytechnic University at Pomona, undergraduates give to a students-only fund, established in 1998, that is used for scholarships. Several schools, including the University of Georgia, solicit seniors to donate typically $35 to $50 for the betterment of the campus. At Auburn University, a few colleges within the university are asking students to make contributions in the amount of their class year -- $20.04 for 2004, for example.

The movement is not surprising as public colleges and universities have turned their attention to younger and younger alumni over the years, said John Taylor of Durham, N.C., a higher education consultant who specializes in fund-raising.

''You typically didn't approach people until a good five years post graduation. That seemed to be rule of thumb," Taylor said. ''Over the last decade or two, we've seen that shift, so the day after graduation they're fair game. Now the shift has moved further to talking to seniors before they graduate, so logically that translates to the earlier you contact the student the better."

Alabama senior Glen Gregory does not care that student donations go to a scholarship. Nor does he care that university officials are asking for what they say amounts to about the price of a cup of Starbucks coffee.

''I wouldn't give money now, but I'd give money later," said Gregory, a Memphis native whose parents help pay his tuition. ''I got a pretty tight budget. . . . It would pretty much be me asking my parents for money."

Philanthropy specialists think the campaigns reflect what private institutions have done all along.

Now, ''there is a growing need [by public colleges and universities] for private donations because of evolution of government funding," said Tim Seiler, director of the fund-raising school at the Center for Philanthropy at Indiana University.

States are facing tough economic times, with more and more taxpayer dollars going for faculty pay raises and rising healthcare costs. That leaves universities to find money for building and expansion, typically through private donations and tuition increases.

Of Alabama's 16 four-year colleges, half have increased tuition by at least 33 percent over the past four years. Nationwide, tuition climbed 10.5 percent at public four-year colleges last year.

But university officials insist that tapping undergraduates for donations is not only about the money. ''It's about establishing a firm tradition of giving," said Graham Smith, coordinator of the UA student campaign.

It also teaches students the value of their education, ''what it really costs to run this gigantic machine," Smith said.

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