How donors give to higher education: Thirty years of supporting U.S. college and university missions

March 2020

Donations to higher education have soared in recent times, along with concerns about how the money is being used.


To maintain mission-driven philanthropic strategies, U.S. colleges and universities need to consider a range of stakeholders while attending to complex external forces and challenges-everything from demographic shifts to public health crises. This paper, which examines 30-year trends in U.S. higher education philanthropy, looks at how donors’ purposes have changed over time, as well as how and for what purposes different groups of donors give across a range of institutional types.

Key Insights
Donors increased their support for U.S. higher education during the study, especially for public institutions.
Donors showed an increasing desire to limit their gifts by choosing restricted giving and supporting current operations, rather than giving for capital and endowment purposes.
Research was the most popular recipient of the restricted current operations support at each time period studied.
Student financial aid received one-eighth or less of the restricted current operations support.
All donor types gave more over time, but organizational donors increased their giving more because of a steeper rise in foundation giving.

The authors used a longitudinal national sample, spanning the years 1988 to 2018, comprising about 400 public and private institutions. The sample was drawn from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education’s Voluntary Support of Education survey and consists primarily of four-year institutions.