Donating to higher education is a great thing, right? Especially when it enables nontraditional college students to attend prestigious schools like Oxford, Harvard and Stanford. I’ve written here about Hazim Hardeman, the young man from North Philadelphia whose college studies began at Community College of Philadelphia and who currently is pursuing an advanced degree at Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship. That Rhodes Money given to Oxford will pay dividends aplenty for Hardeman, and the ripple effect from his life’s work will benefit many others.

Well-endowed universities generously offer deserving students the opportunity to be part of their great traditions. What’s not to like about that? Nothing.

Great schools like England’s Cambridge and America’s Yale, MIT, Duke, and others also can do their share to help first-generation students thrive on their campuses because for decades (even centuries) they have enjoyed enormous financial support from foundations and wealthy donors. They’re loaded. And each year, when the donor class looks to contribute to higher education, they turn to those proven universities. They open their wallets and make the rich schools richer.

We tend to assume that this all makes sense, but it’s not quite that simple. Few people get to make that journey from their home to a school like Oxford. Author Malcolm Gladwell famously challenged this assumption in print and on his podcast.

Gladwell would not be surprised at the recent data about donations to colleges. With rare exceptions, wealthy donors give to the same schools year after year. The rich get richer, and they go about doing good things.

But Gladwell would like to see them try something like the approach that Robert M. Rowan took when he donated an enormous amount of money to then Glassboro State College in New Jersey, a school that serves local people and makes a difference in the region for many people. Listen to Gladwell’s account of the story, and of his tete-a-tete with the president of Stanford University. Food for thought. Might be a turning point for someone else who will make a difference like Robert Rowan did.


Ned Bachus is the author of Open Admissions: What Teaching at Community College Taught Me About Learning (Wild River Books, 2017) and of the “Turning Points” weekly blog on City of Brotherly Love (Fleur-de-Lis Books), his book of stories, was awarded the 2013 IPPY Gold Medal for Literary Fiction.