Behind a Rare (and Historic) Community College Give

What do Barack Obama and the music legend Herb Alpert have in common? Probably a few things. But the first that comes to mind is an affection for free community college. And where do they differ?

Well, while Obama can announce his "America’s College Promise" program only to see it languish in the halls of Congress, Alpert, through his foundation, can whip out his checkbook and be done with it. (It's one of many the perks of not having to deal with that pesky "separation of powers.")

The Herb Alpert Foundation, co-founded with his wife, singer Lani Hall, recently announced a $10.1 million donation to Los Angeles City College (LACC) that will provide all music majors at the school with a tuition-free education. The money will endow tuition for the school’s music majors and supply them with music instruction. It will also allow LACC to increase the number of music majors from 175 to 250. The free tuition will take effect beginning in the fall of 2017.

Let's jump right into the takeaways, shall we?

First off, as previously noted here on IP, one secret to providing kids with a tuition-free education isn't so secret. (By the way, the secret is "more philanthropy.")

Yet while we see reduced or eliminated tuition at Ivy League schools—Princeton offers free tuition to students from households that make less than $120,000 and free room and board to those who make under $60,000; Harvard and Yale make tuition free for families who make less than $65,000—with a few exceptions, we haven't seen extensive philanthropy along these lines at the community college level.

Data provided by the Los Angeles Times corroborates this admittedly anecdotal trend:

According to an estimate provided by the Council for Aid to Education, a national organization that maintains data on educational giving, only 1.5% of charitable gift dollars raised by educational institutions go to two-year institutions.

This lack of philanthropy is doubly vexing when you consider the fact that unlike many well-endowed four-year private and public universities, community colleges have been hit particularly hard by the economic downturn.

For example, California community college course offerings dropped by almost a quarter from 2008 to 2012. In one survey, 78 of the system's 112 colleges reported more than 472,300 students were on waiting lists for classes in fall semester—an average of about 7,150 per campus.

And so we wonder why donors aren't giving more to community colleges. Theories abound, starting with the most obvious, which is that these schools don't have a lot of rich alums, and thus find themselves in a downward funding spiral. Another factor, here, is community colleges' relative lack of sexiness—donors, after all, like ornate plaques and glitzy new wings and scientific breakthroughs. 

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So why did Alpert decide to give to the LACC? Simple: "My brother went there. My ex-partner [record producer] Lou Adler went there. I've visited the school. It's alive. It’s kickin'."

Add it all up, and the gift, coupled with Alpert's underlying motivations—heck, even Alpert's language describing his motivations—perfectly align with his "If it feels right I do it" philanthropic credo.

Alpert expounded on this philosophy during a chat with IP last year, noting that while "I'm not the Ford Foundation and I don't have this big treasure...I have enough that if it's spent in the right way and the right direction that we could affect lots of lives in a positive way."

It's safe to say that providing all LACC music majors with a tuition-free education will affect "lots of lives in a positive way." Alpert's gift is the largest to an individual community college in the history of Southern California and the second-largest gift in the history of the state.

What's more, Alpert isn't a Johnny-come-lately to the community college arena. His foundation's support for the school goes back 15 years, and most recently includes 2013's three-year $300,000 grant earmarked for scholarship support, among other things.

And so moving forward, the big question is this: Will other philanthropists take Alpert's cue—pun intended—and assist struggling community colleges and their students?

Robert Schwartz, the director of the LACC Foundation, hopes so. "Herb's instinct is that by making this gift, he said, "others will follow his lead."

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