A Class Act: Speculating Why Lawrenceville Alumni Donate

Angel Xin ’26 in Opinions | December 8, 2023

          As much as Lawrenceville is known for its high quality education, it is equally known for its high tuition—one of the highest in the country at $73,220 every year. While geographic location could be used to explain the exorbitant expenses of other toppers of highest-tuition lists, such as California’s WoodSide Priory School, The Webb School, and The Thatcher School, this likely cannot apply to Lawrenceville. At the same time, Lawrenceville is also famous for its resources, including an enormous endowment, described by The Lawrenceville Fund as a “margin of excellence.”

          In 2018, the Lawrenceville Fund suggested that the school’s huge endowment, ranking in the top 10 among all private boarding schools in the country, owed its thanks to two major parties: the School's alumni (33 percent) and family of alumni (63 percent). Parents donate to the school to better the educational environment for their children. Why, then, do alumni, who have already reaped the benefits from the school, continue to give back?

          This fall, the Class of 2024 broke the record for making the largest commitment to the Lawrenceville Fund, with 90 percent of the class donating. My primary focus however, is how these donations would impact our community. In comparison to the hundreds of millions of dollars that the school gathered from successful alumni, input from current students are comparably insignificant to the large-scale alumni gifts. For example, the recently constructed Tsai Field House and the long-existing Bunn Library are both physical testaments to our alumni’s generosity. It is the alumni contributions that have given us a better learning environment, affording us a campus that resembles post-secondary institutions. Of course, a sixth of our endowment also supports students on financial aid—the school’s official website states that another $100 million is dedicated to funding for scholarship aid in order to make Lawrenceville more accessible. NAIS, the National Association of Independent Schools, for example, claims that “among students at boarding schools, 46 percent received financial aid,” while, currently, only 29 percent of our student body is on need-based assistance. The opportunity to bring more students with diverse socioeconomic backgrounds to Lawrenceville may be a strong motivator for philanthropic alumni. 

          Despite donations’ many tangible benefits to our campus, I still believe the most important benefit of a large endowment is mental, not physical. Donations are a way to show off—for alumni to signal that they remain connected to the school community, that they had an enjoyable time during their stay, and are currently successful in their respective careers. All three of these signals may benefit the School, enticing prospective students to enroll. A large endowment means that, in the past, the School was able to pave roads to success for its former students in hopes of drawing highly ambitious students to attend. If this cycle continues, Lawrenceville will continuously admit passionate students who will grow to be important members of the global society and eventually give back. Esteemed universities like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton similarly prize themselves on their high endowments—not only because these donations are testament to the success of their graduates and their educations’ impact on that success, but also because they have been factored into the determination of college rankings, according to U.S. News & World Report. Money is automatically factored into the very systems we use to measure—and compare—the status of a school.

          While Lawrenceville is undoubtedly reliant on alumni donations, what do alumni gain from their generosity? Optimistically, one could assume that they are altruistic and are merely giving back without any intent of reaping any benefits. Ultimately, this may be true simply because of the Lawrenceville education’s heavy emphasis on giving back. Being required to participate in a LCAP, a long-term opportunity for real community service, cultivates our senses of responsibility. Therefore, in certain ways, an altruistic instinct to give back is something that we develop as part of our education here. However, pure altruism, which I believe is inherently alien to humans, is highly improbable—even motivating factors like receiving praise from those you respect subconsciously cause donors to link giving back with external validation. Donations can be yet another way to signal status: a mansion in Malibu cannot shout, “I have enough wealth to satisfy all of my desires, so I will give back with money that is no longer useful to me.” Ultimately, having “enough money” to live in a state of utter financial excess is incredibly difficult, and donating a building is itself a way to signal wealth. It takes a significant amount of wealth to seek catharsis by giving money away instead of receiving it. At the end of the day, therefore, the relationship between those donating and receiving the donation is mutually beneficial. 

          Personally, I would choose to donate to the School, not because of altruism I was neither born with or have actively learned through my two years here nor because I have reached a stage in my life where I have more than I could ever spend. To me, donating is a Lawrenceville tradition that has been established for hundreds of years and is one that I would like to uphold. Perhaps it is related to my sense of ego, but the thought of supporting a community with an ongoing influx of intelligent, kind, and dedicated people just feels right. And given my privilege of having the power to give back, I would choose to do what feels right.