If you go to college in the US, after graduation you’ll start receiving requests to give money to your university. Given that universities in the US are businesses (usually run very efficiently), I always wondered what would motivate alumni to donate. There are many worthwhile causes in the world (e.g. hunger, malaria, preventable diseases). Why choose a school that may use your money to build a world-class swimming pool or running track?
Maybe it’s the way things have always been done in the US. I have a different perspective because I got my first degree at the University of Buenos Aires, in Argentina. The UBA is taxpayer-funded and free (as in beer, students don’t pay a dime). The quality of the education we received was excellent. I don’t remember ever receiving a request for a donation after I graduated; I suspect the university is not even set up to receive donations. Of course I always felt a sense of indebtedness to my fellow taxpayers, which was one of the reasons I chose to start a company in Argentina. Mind you, I’m not a bleeding-heart altruist. I probably wouldn’t have done it if it hadn’t been a great opportunity. However, I did feel that creating local jobs and spreading some lessons learned in Silicon Valley provided a sort of return on the taxpayer money spent on me.
With Carnegie Mellon, it’s a different story. When I first got there in 1997, I was taken aback by what I perceived as a display of wealth on campus. The facilities were world-class, all buildings looked beautiful to me (and it is no Stanford!). The manicured lawn was a stark contrast with the graffiti-filled walls of UBA buildings. The fact that I had to pay hundreds of dollars for textbooks added to my surprise. In Argentina professors typically do not have their own textbooks. They suggest a few titles, and it’s up to students to figure out if they want to buy them, borrow them or learn the material in other ways.
I graduated from CMU many years ago. Since then I’ve been receiving emails asking for donations, and I’ve even given money once or twice. Because I recently had a “startup exit” a fellow alumnus asked me to join him in a slightly larger donation. This got me thinking, why? Carnegie Mellon has 2.3 billion dollars in assets. Furthermore, their assets increased by 278M in 2011. They certainly don’t need my money. Don’t get me wrong, I’m extremely proud of having attended graduate school there. Going to CMU for my Masters in Software Engineering was one of the single best decisions I’ve ever made. I have no doubt that I wouldn’t be where I am if I haven’t done it. But unlike other classmates I wasn’t corporate-sponsored. Getting the degree was very expensive, especially for a foreign student. During that time my net worth went from positive to negative. All the money I saved during my first year working in the US went to pay back school-related debt.
Having said all this, the title is an honest question. I have no motivation to donate money to CMU. Why do others donate to their universities? To clarify even further, I’m talking about disinterested donations: if you expect a political favor, or to have your child admitted, that’s not really a donation in my view.
So no, I’m not donating money to universities in the US. Here’s what I believe is a worthy cause: