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Giving Money to an Elite Private University is the Worst Kind of “Charity”


The puff headline/subhed:

The reality:

I am torn about this gift. It’s not the grotesque waste the way that, say, Nike founder Phil Knight’s vanity $400 million scholarship at Stanford or financier Stephen Schwarzman’s $150 million performing arts center at Yale were. Johns Hopkins is dramatically poorer than those schools; Stanford’s 2017 endowment was $24.8 billion, Yale’s was $27.2 billion, while Johns Hopkins had $3.8 billion. That’s not a tiny amount, but it does make gifts to Hopkins a little less egregious.

Bloomberg’s cause is also considerably better than those of Knight or Schwarzman. Knight wanted a pseudo-Rhodes Scholarship with his name on it; Schwarzman thought that Yale — Yale! — really needed more fancy auditoriums. Bloomberg was motivated, he writes in his op-ed, by a conviction that “No qualified high school student should ever be barred entrance to a college based on his or her family’s bank account,” a laudable ideal.

And there’s the rub. While I don’t think this gift is necessarily harmful, it’s a wasted opportunity, for at least two reasons. One, it’s not the best way to use $1.8 billion to further the goal of increasing the number of poor and working-class Americans who can afford to attend and, more important, finish college — a more sensible framing of the cause that Bloomberg is embracing than focusing merely on the admissions process. Two, boosting college completion in the US is probably a worse use of money, from a humanitarian perspective, than some other causes Bloomberg could have chosen.


The problem of rising tuition in the US differs across institutions. But the vast majority of people in the US go to public, government-supported institutions of higher education. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center estimates that as of spring 2018, there were 7.4 million people enrolled full time in public institutions offering either two- or four-year degrees, and only 3.4 million enrolled in private four-year colleges (the number of people in private two-year colleges was negligible).

What’s more, most Americans don’t attend selective schools like Johns Hopkins. About 75 percent of undergraduates go to a school that accepts more than half of its applicants, and only 4 percent go to schools where the acceptance rate is below 25 percent. Hopkins’s acceptance rate is about 12 percent.

Changing things at Hopkins, or even changing things at Hopkins and inspiring other selective schools to do likewise, doesn’t change the situation for the vast majority of college students who won’t attend an elite institution.

What could Bloomberg have done instead to advance his stated goal of increasing access to college for low-income people? Well, one major driver of rising tuition at community colleges and other non-selective four-year public schools is declining support from state governments. 45 of the 50 states spent less, per student, on public colleges and universities in 2018 than they did in 2008, before the recession, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. In nine states, including quite populous ones like Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Arizona, funding was down by more than 30 percent.

Matthews is right that there have been much worse vanity donations to universities that don’t need the money, but if you want bang for the buck state schools without selective admissions are where to go.

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