In August, Forbes magazine published its annual Grateful Graduates Index, which according to the article headline purports to show the “200 Colleges With the Happiest, Most Successful Alumni”. The index is a score calculated from two variables: 1) the median of total private donations per enrolled student over the last seven years, as reported to the Department of Education, and 2) the alumni participation rate, or the percentage of graduates that give back in the form of donations to the college each year, regardless of dollar amount. The participation rate, compiled by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), is averaged over three years.

The donations-per-enrolled-student variable receives a 70% weighting in the index; alumni participation receives 30%. The resulting score is used to rank private, not-for-profit colleges with more than 500 students. The score ranges from a high of 99.81 (Dartmouth College in New Hampshire) to a low of 56.92 (Morningside College in Iowa).

Most of the top-scoring schools on the list are what you’d expect: in addition to Dartmouth, Williams, Princeton, Amherst, and Davidson comprise #1-#5. Maybe Davidson raises an eyebrow. Its robust alumni participation rate of 44.5% is the 4th highest overall of the 200 schools. That’s not surprising. Its donations-per-enrolled-student median amount of $19,994 is the 12th highest overall and is larger than Duke ($19,974), Brown ($19,765), Cornell ($18,848), and Notre Dame ($17,472). That’s surprising.

Surprising enough to warrant a closer look at the index. A few observations:

  • Of the top 10 schools in the alumni participation rate variable, five are in the GGI top 10, another four are in the GGI top 50, and one (College of Idaho @ 42.3%) is outside the GGI top 100.
  • Of the top 10 schools in median donations per enrolled student, four are ranked in the GGI top 10 and none is ranked outside the GGI top 30.
  • For the entire GGI pool, the median 3-year average alumni participation rate is 18.3%. Of the 200 schools listed, 60 have a participation rate less than 15%, and 12 of those have a rate less than 10%.
  • Of the top 50 GGI schools, 23 of them received at least 1 contribution of $50M or more since 2011. Of the remaining 150 schools, 9 received at least 1 contribution of $50M or more during the GGI’s 7-year timeframe (SOURCE: “Major Private Gifts to Higher Education”, Almanac of Higher Education, published by the Chronicle of Higher Education). The point here is that schools receiving gifts of this magnitude are accomplished in their fundraising.

My goal in digging into the numbers comes from a fundamental disagreement with the notion that these are in fact the private colleges with “the happiest, most successful alumni”. Yes, these schools certainly have a healthy combination of donor and dollar volume that speaks to the financial success of their alumni (although participation rates of 1.9% and 4.2% might suggest otherwise). But in the words of singer/songwriter/composer Peggy Lee, “Is that all there is?”

Alumni success – and happiness – isn’t all about money. I’m working with a client school at which we are asking students and young alumni to identify characteristics that will define success in their lives. The initial pool of responses produced the highest volume in these categories (there are 19 categories to choose from). In order:

  1. Using my skills and gifts to help people
  2. Maintaining my health and physical fitness
  3. Building financial security/stability (NOTE: “Accumulating significant wealth” a separate category, is #16)
  4. Paying off student loans
  5. Raising children

You can read “money” into a few of these items, but not all of them. So if the ingredients for baking the success cake go beyond dollars, shouldn’t we also give value to what students and alumni are signaling as important elements of their recipes?

The Grateful Graduates Index shows schools that do a great job fundraising. Leaping to the claim that these are the “schools with the happiest, most successful alumni” is a stretch, because the index only tells part of the story. And the opposite isn’t true: most graduates of private schools that missed the GGI ranking aren’t ungrateful. They’re just not giving money, and for most schools (and rankings), receiving money is the only definition of gratitude. It’s a definition that needs to expand if schools want to harvest the full value of their happy, successful, and grateful grads.