Follow New York’s lead on matching university gifts

Appeal to generosity rather than lotteries, gambling taxes

A correction has been added to this story.

STONY BROOK UNIVERSITY, part of the New York higher education system, just got some joyous news, in fact half a billion dollars of joy. Jim and Marylyn Simmons donated what is possibly the largest gift ever made to a public university. The donors credited their choice to contribute such a generous gift to the recently launched program in New York that matches private contributions for the endowment of SUNY’s four university centers.

Massachusetts has been experimenting with matching gifts to build the endowments of our 29 public colleges and universities. Seeing what New York has gained by going big should encourage us to expand our program.

The Commonwealth has been matching private contributions made to our public colleges and universities since the Dukakis administration. If a private citizen donated $2, the state would put in $1. Following a 12-year hiatus caused by the economic downturn in 2008, the program was revived in 2019. Since then, the state has allocated a total of $65 million to the program, with $10 million in 2019, $25 million in 2021, and $20 million in 2023. The budget for this year, as it stands currently, includes an additional $20 million.  In response to the matching offer, the private sector, a majority of whom are individual donors, has contributed $130 million of its own funds. In terms of the state’s investment, the private sector’s contribution represents a remarkable 200 percent return.

According to the University of Massachusetts, over the past 25 years, $74 million in state matching funds has facilitated the raising of over $130 million from numerous donors. The combined value of these endowment funds has now reached $400 million, accounting for one-third of the university’s total endowment.

Our public colleges have benefited from the last years’ injection of about $200 million into their endowments. This has been particularly meaningful for state universities and community colleges that have small fundraising departments and correspondingly lower endowments. The opportunity for private donors, alumni, or families with students enrolled in these colleges to have their contributions matched has proven to be highly appealing, leading to numerous instances of endowment family scholarships being established in honor of the donors.

However, in comparison to the Simmons’ $500 million contribution, these gifts have been relatively small. If the state were to significantly increase the amount of funding provided, the UMass system would stand to benefit the most. Without any matching, the UMass Chan Medical School has received a $175 million gift from the Morningside Foundation. [CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, the name of the UMass Chan Medical School was misnamed and the donor was also improperly identified.]

If Massachusetts were to allocate the same proportion of its budget as New York did for endowment matching, our state would have approximately $113 million available to incentivize private contributions. This, in turn, could attract over $226 million from the private sector, resulting in a combined total of more than $339 million for state college endowments. This could be truly transformative, greatly increasing student aid, professor salaries, and deferred maintenance. If this were done annually, Massachusetts could reverse decades of disinvestment in our higher education system without much burden on the taxpayer.

Meet the Author
Public-private partnerships have the potential to significantly contribute to state funds in various sectors. It is not only affluent families but also middle-class households across all our cities and towns that have generously contributed billions of dollars to causes like education and healthcare. Promoting and expanding this philanthropic culture through matching programs can strengthen the state budget. It is also better to appeal to our collective sense of generosity than relying on revenue generated from lotteries and gambling taxes.

Robert Hildreth is the founder of the Hildreth Institute, a non-profit research and policy center dedicated to restoring the promise of higher education as an engine of upward mobility for all.