Image of an overturned jar spilling out pennies. Accurate data can encourage donors

Ways to Explain Graduation Rates to Donors

College and university foundation and advancement offices do important work. So do their supporting professional associations, such as CASE. Their work is critical to institutional success. But many people on campus still aren’t aware that the gifts donors make to the institution often fund things like special events, programs, scholarships, and endowed chairs. In this post, we share ways to explain graduation rates to donors — which come up in many conversations.

Jar of spilled pennies symbolizing money coming from talking to donors.

To many, there is one “type” of money (green) – and that’s it. However, institutions need multiple types of money – state money, tuition money, fee money, donor money – to function and flourish. And even within the donation category, there are sub-categories. Restricted funds are intended for a special purpose like scholarships, buildings, or student support services. Unrestricted funds allow the institution to ‘do good things’ of their choosing.

Strategic Asks

What most people don’t realize is that getting donations – of any type – is strategic work. It requires a well-organized and coordinated effort. A significant amount of data and information is culled, analyzed and utilized in creating capital campaigns, campus-wide fundraising, and specific donor asks. This is not a haphazard approach. For example, asking donors for $50 may result in eager contributions. But it may also be a lost opportunity. What if those donors would want to make much larger donations for a specific purpose that is near and dear to their hearts? Doing the work to ask the right questions to the right people can take longer, but may bear better fruit.

One of the most common donation types is scholarships. Who doesn’t want to contribute to the success of a rising star? But of course, everyone wants to ensure their money is used well. So, if donors are considering giving money earmarked for scholarships, they may want information about your record of student success. This includes the completion rates of other scholarship recipients. We know past performance is a strong predictor of future performance. So, if scholarship recipients did well in the past, chances are the institution will be able to make good use of the donation.  

Case in Point

Consider the following: Sam, a development officer at Extraordinary University carefully reaches out to a number of alumni who have the potential to give a large gift. Hazel, a potential new donor, is intrigued. She likes the idea of making a difference in the lives of students at the institution she credits for significantly impacting her career. So, she’s considering making a sizable scholarship donation. She thinks about it, and does her research. As part of her research, she googles Extraordinary U and finds credible government and third-party websites that show the graduation rate at 75%. Recalling that a 75% is a solid C, she is surprised that it doesn’t look like her beloved alma mater is having the impact that it had on her and her classmates. When Sam, the development officer, follows up on Hazel’s decision to make a gift, Hazel asks about the 75% — is it accurate? Are graduation rates really that low?  

One woman speaking to another, talking to a donor about graduation rates.

Questions about Graduation Rates

Sam gets questions like this a lot as a Development Officer. Many higher education leaders do not feel that traditional graduation rates accurately reflect the true student success at their institutions. But luckily, Extraordinary University has their RealityCheck Report. This lets Sam answer these kinds of questions from donors directly without using confusing higher ed jargon.

Armed with Extraordinary U’s RealityCheck analysis, Sam can say, “That’s a great question, Hazel. We saw that data too and dug in because it seemed like something was missing. We know that some of our students graduate successfully, while others don’t. For example, our RealityCheck Report results show that our first-time, part-time students graduate at a higher rate than expected. Four points higher, actually! And that’s in large part due to directed donations for scholarships and student support resources. But we also know that some other student groups, like our first-time, full-time students, are under-performing. Those are exactly the students you would be helping with your donation. As you know, Extraordinary University has always been an innovator in education. We believe we can help all groups of students be successful. But we need to provide the right resources and support to those students. And that’s why we are focusing our scholarship efforts on students who have the greatest chance to benefit.”  

Answers about Graduation Rates

Sam uses the RealityCheck Report custom created by the Institute for Effectiveness in Higher Education for Extraordinary University to answer potential donors’ questions all the time. As you can see, she can speak with donors like Hazel in language that is relatable (over- and under- performance), rather than higher education jargon and statistics filled with caveats.

Without the RealityCheck Report, development officers find themselves trying to explain how the publicly-available completion rate data is based only on a small set of students, and is not reflective of the entire population. Worse yet, they might unintentionally head down a rabbit hole as they try to describe what first-time, full-time students are and why only they are counted. (We answer that in another blog, and explain how it came to be in the standard in the first place.) Alternatively, Sam might point to the RealityCheck Report results to clarify that a 75% completion rate is good, compared to Extraordinary U’s expected rate and that of its peers. Without all the noise from jargon and caveats, Hazel sees more clearly how students are performing and how her donation can further support student success.

Translating Graduation Rates

RealityCheck gives Sam the narrative needed to secure donations. These donations allow Extraordinary University to support students with the greatest need, who can benefit the most. Sam excels in meeting her professional goals, while helping the institution achieve its goal of stronger completion rates for all students. Win-Win!

Want to Learn More about Engaging Donors with Graduation Rate Data?

Learn more and get a sneak peek at your 2020 RealityCheck results. And feel free to reach out to talk more about engaging donors using graduation rate data.




The Institute for Effectiveness in Higher Education (IEHE) innovates and improves higher education standards through our strategic research, publicly available resources, and partnerships with colleges and universities. We provide extensive expertise on data strategy, IPEDS, institutional research and student success to drive institutional effectiveness.