The Ivy Coach Daily

April 21, 2024

Parental Donations vs. Bribery: The Right and Wrong Donations in College Admissions

Students lay under the trees on Harvard University’s Harvard Yard.

It’s been five years since Varsity Blues, the college admissions scandal that shook the nation for the lengths certain desperate parents would go to in the hope of boosting their children’s cases for admission to the likes of USC, Stanford, and Yale.

There were the parents who, through an unscrupulous college consultant, paid off an SAT tutor to sit and take the exam for their children. There were also the parents who pretended their children played water polo or rowed crew so the same consultant could pay off athletic coaches in the respective sports to reserve recruiting slots. The common theme? Bribery. 

So, what’s the difference between donating to a college to boost your child’s case for admission and making a bribe (or even implying giving off a bribe)?

The Right Kinds of Parental Donations to Colleges

There are two kinds of donors that elite colleges appreciate — so much so that they reward the children of these donors with preferential treatment in admissions: the major donors and the smaller, loyal donors.

The Major Donors

The major donors are those whose gifts — typically to their alma maters — are so substantial that they subsidize the construction of libraries, dormitories, research facilities, athletic stadiums, and more. Think $10 million or more. 

These donors often give substantially over many years. Still, some major donors make gigantic bequests all at once (think Glenn and Barbara Britt’s $150 million donation to Glenn’s alma mater, Dartmouth, in 2024, Michael Bloomberg’s $1.8 billion gift to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins, in 2018, or Phil Knight’s $400 million donation to his alma mater, Stanford, in 2016).

The children of these major donors are flagged in admissions offices as development cases. At a school like Harvard, if the student’s grades and scores are well below the school’s standards, they might even find their way onto the not-so-secret Harvard backdoor that Ivy Coach has been quoted on quite extensively over the years, the Z-List, a list Harvard’s longtime Dean of Admissions Bill Fitzsimmons notoriously doesn’t even share with his fellow admissions officers.

The Smaller, Loyal Donors

However, elite colleges don’t only value their major donors. After all, most alums don’t have a spare $10 million to give their alma maters, and even if they did, they might wish to earmark their savings for other noble causes than bolstering the endowment of their already deep-pocketed alma maters.

It’s why these same schools appreciate their alums who donate every year after their graduations — hundreds of dollars, thousands, or tens of thousands of dollars. In fact, college development offices keep detailed donation histories for every alum, including every donation they’ve ever made to the institution. These donation histories are made available to admissions officers evaluating the cases for admission of the donors’ children.

The Wrong Kinds of Parental Donations to Colleges

But, not all donations will help a student’s case for admission. For people with no affiliation to a college who suddenly wish to donate to a school within, say, a year of their child applying, their donation will be perceived by the admissions officer precisely how they likely fear it will be perceived. They’ll think the parent is trying to buy their child’s way in.

Don’t get us wrong. The college will accept the donation. They’ll even likely send a big thank you note. The president might even handwrite it. And the donor will indeed receive solicitations for more donations for many years. That said, it has a greater chance of backfiring for the donor — as their child will unlikely get in because the move will be perceived as a transparent attempt to buy their way in — than giving their child a boost in admissions.

Ivy Coach’s Advice on Donating to Colleges

A Word to the Braggarts

We can’t tell you how many prospective clients have approached Ivy Coach over the years interested in making donations — typically around $1 million — to an elite university, whether it’s a parent’s alma mater or not, in the hope of boosting their child’s case for admission.

Notice how we called them prospective clients. It’s because so many of them are all talk. Most merely wish to brag about their wealth; few will become our clients. And if they did become our clients, we’d just as soon tell them that they don’t have to donate so much money to a college in the hope of boosting their child’s odds of admission. They can simply pay Ivy Coach, and we’ll give them that edge they seek.

Of course, over the last three-plus decades, we at Ivy Coach have helped many donors navigate the churning waters of elite college admissions so their donations through the development office are perceived precisely how we want them to be perceived (not as trying to buy their children’s way in!). But before they make any such donation, we always tell these families that they can keep their money since Ivy Coach can give them that boost without any such donation. After all, our students don’t need to be flagged as development cases to get in.

Misinformation on Donations to Elite Universities

Perhaps one of the reasons there’s so much confusion surrounding what kinds of donations will help a student’s case for admission to an elite university and which kinds of donations will backfire is because there’s so much misinformation on the matter.

In a December 2023 New York Post article, a college counselor laughably suggested that the Ivy League slashed the price of the “donor door” from $20 million to $2 million after some of these schools faced significant backlash for not doing more for their Jewish students in the wake of rising incidences of campus antisemitism.

The notion that these schools would make an alleged 80% cut to their “donor door” over less than three months reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the college development process. Such a misleading piece should never have been published.

Even a Major Donation Doesn’t Guarantee Admission

A few years back, Ivy Coach’s managing partner, Brian Taylor, was quoted in New York Times piece:

“A donation to an Ivy-caliber school would have to be valued at $10 million or more to earn an applicant truly special consideration beyond their merits, according to several experienced college admissions consultants…Mr. Taylor of Ivy Coach agreed that even after a $10 million gift, a student’s application would not be greeted with ’no questions asked.’ ’It’s not guaranteed,’ he said.”

We encourage Ivy Coach’s readers to reread our managing partner’s words for good measure: “It’s not guaranteed.”

Ivy Coach’s Assistance Navigating Donations to Elite Colleges

Now that you understand what constitutes the right and wrong kinds of donations to colleges, if you’re seeking help navigating this process filled with pitfalls, fill out Ivy Coach’s complimentary consultation form to learn about our services, and we’ll be in touch.

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