Technology: Facebook vs. College Reunions

Before he graduated from Tulane in 2003, Ardalen Minokadeh spent most of his waking hours in one of two places: P.J.'s Coffee on Maple Street and the late-night carrels at the University Center. But he didn't revisit any of his old New Orleans haunts during his five-year college reunion last month, because he didn't go. He already sees plenty of his closest Tulane pals, and as for the dozens of more distant friends from school, why does he need a reunion when he's got Facebook? Social networking has largely been a force for good, reconnecting grade-school classmates, creating a whole new approach to dating and enabling employers to check up on new hires. But it might just kill the college reunion.

Historically, reunions have used voyeurism as a lure. Who lives where, who got hitched, who got fat—you had to show up to find out. But now the answers are all online. "Facebook has turned the idea of college reunions from an expensive necessity to just expensive," says Kevin Pang, who skipped his five-year reunion at the University of Southern California last week.

That's bad news for colleges: reunions are the most reliable fund-raising tool in their arsenal. "It works, there's no question," says Derek Wittner, Columbia University's deputy vice president for development, adding that reunions often account for a third of overall giving. "[They are] used, by design, to encourage more aggressive philanthropy every five years." Reunions work, says Alison Traub, a development officer at the University of Virginia, because they make people feel involved and provide a "natural timetable" for donations. "Fund-raising is all about creating artificial deadlines—'Won't you make a gift before reunion?' " Colleges know from their own research that if you get graduates to start donating young, they'll keep it up late into life. The danger is that an attendance falloff at reunions now could have a ripple effect for decades. "If reunions were to go away," says Tim Caboni, a scholar at Vanderbilt's Peabody College of Education, schools will "have to figure out other ways to tap into loyalty."

So far, college administrators report no such decline. But they have reason to be nervous. Anyone attending a five-year reunion in 2008 was part of the last class for which Facebook was not an integral part of campus life; it began catching on in mid-2003. The class of 2004—next summer's reunion crop—will be the first real test.