Holding a Tuition Freedom Day

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More institutions are seeking to grow their donor pipeline by reaching out to potential donors early — in fact, while they are still students at the institution. We have seen a series of tactics at different colleges for cultivating a culture of gratitude and giving among students who will in a few short years become young alumni and potential contributors to the annual fund. Tactics include:

  • Passing out piggy banks at Emory University and inviting freshmen to contribute spare change
  • Speaking to the importance of philanthropy and asking for $1 donations at new student convocations (this practice has been adopted at California University of Pennsylvania and Texas Christian University)
  • Encouraging the student body to set its own goal for fundraising during a campaign (the University of Cincinnati has launched a “One Billion Pennies” drive coinciding with the school’s campaign)

Note that it does take a sustained effort throughout the student’s matriculation at your institution to develop a thriving culture of student philanthropy. Tactics such as a “One Billion Pennies” campaign or an ask during new student convocation will be most effective when they are a part of a larger strategy for encouraging students to become young alumni donors.

One activity rapidly gaining in popularity is the tuition freedom day, a program that typically highlights a date in the school year when tuition and state support stop and charitable gifts start paying for each student’s college experience. A tuition freedom day program is an opportunity to involve the whole campus community in a celebration of the role philanthropic contributions provide in financing each student’s education — a chance to raise awareness and invite students to give back.

Erin Swietlik, past director of young alumni and student philanthropy at Xavier University, offers practical tips for getting an effective tuition freedom day started.

Planning Your Tuition Freedom Day

Swietlik recommends setting clear objectives — will your tuition freedom day program focus on raising awareness of the limits of tuition and the role of alumni in supporting education? Will your program focus on making an initial ask and increasing involvement in the senior gift? Will your program focus on connecting students and young alumni, and building affinity? It’s possible that your program will address all of these, but to guide your efforts, it’s important to set clear priorities and to understand where your tuition freedom day fits into your overall strategy for cultivating your young alumni pipeline.

For example, Xavier University decided to prioritize raising awareness, and built a program around opportunities to educate students about the importance of alumni philanthropy. In this program:

  • Faculty, staff, and students are invited to an afternoon cookout (you can limit costs by partnering with local restaurants to secure discounted catering in return for their visibility on campus)
  • Student groups are invited to perform (e.g., dance team, theatre groups, stand-up comedy groups, athletic mascots), providing an opportunity to build affinity and emphasize that alumni support makes it possible for the institution to fund these groups
  • 100-200 t-shirts are handed out during the event; Swietlik notes, “as students wear those t-shirts, you have continued awareness and marketing throughout the year”
  • While students are in line for food, they complete thank you postcards addressed to the annual fund’s lead givers

That is Xavier University’s approach, focused on awareness. Another institution, prioritizing efforts to connect students with young alumni, might make the tuition freedom day more of a networking event. A third institution that has set the goal of driving up senior gift participation might develop the event around a direct ask. (For example, the College of Wooster’s tuition freedom day is actually planned and organized by the senior class committee.)

Swietlik notes that you can also design the tuition freedom day to target different appeals to your various classes. “Once you have run this awareness program for several years, you can establish it as a campus tradition, an event students look forward to,” she notes. Then, while much of the program continues to focus on raising awareness among the younger classes, you can also incorporate an ask for the senior gift; by this time, you will have students who have been attending each year since they entered freshmen. You have had the chance to relay the message to them each year, and now you can add programming focused on the transition from student to young alum.

Generating “Buzz” Before the Event

Xavier University’s program starts six weeks before the actual tuition freedom day, with full-page “teaser” advertisements in the student newspaper, directing students online to learn more. Swietlik recommends highly interactive marketing — for example, an advertisement in the form of a pop quiz asking whether students know how much of the cost of their education is covered by alumni support. Most students simply know that their tuition is high; they don’t realize how much higher it could be without donor support.

Swietlik also offers these suggestions for promoting the event:

  • Invite faculty to wear t-shirts promoting tuition freedom day, provide them with a short script, and encourage them to speak about the t-shirts and what they mean at the start of their classes during that week
  • Post information about the event through any social media channels that you manage, such as a Facebook page or a Twitter feed
  • On the morning of the event, have student volunteers set up posters in classrooms and dorms, and banners across the entrance to the student center
“The message should be the first thing students see that morning, and the message should be everywhere. You want to touch every student on campus.”
Erin Swietlik

When working with a low budget (or no budget), Swietlik recommends making sure to craft your messages in such a way as to make it possible to reuse your posters, banners, yard signs, and other materials:

  • Don’t print specific dates on the banner and posters
  • Rather than citing exact numbers from the year’s budget on your signage, use approximate percentages, which are unlikely to change rapidly

These small details help you limit your signage and materials, as much as possible, to a one-time cost.

Scheduling the day also deserves careful thought. Swietlik warns that often, institutions put too much emphasis on calculating the exact date that tuition “expires.”

“It’s more important to focus your messaging not on the exact date but on the fact that tuition doesn’t cover your education and the importance of alumni support. Your actual ‘tuition freedom’ date may be in the middle of January, but having an institution-wide event in the middle of January might not be effective in generating strong student participation. Pick a date that makes sense for you, probably in early spring.”