With billions of dollars already benefiting wealthy universities, you can help level the playing field for the institutions that serve most nontraditional students.

The Elite Schools Don’t Need Your Money

They’re loaded. If you graduated from Stanford, Harvard, University of Chicago, or the like, you and your fellow alumni have endowed your alma mater very well over the years, and that’s hardly the only source of their money.

Harvard University (Getty Image)
  • Government Loves and Supports Higher Education, Especially Elite Schools

A lot of that wealth comes right from Uncle Sam (or Governor Sam). In a recent article in The American Conservative, University of Pennsylvania professor Amy L. Wax writes, “State and federal governments spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year on university programs, infrastructure, and subsidized student loans and grants.” https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/why-donors-must-abandon-their-ivy-league-alma-maters/?utm_source=ntnlreview&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=amconswap

At least in this case, our government puts its money where its mouth is.

  • To Quote a Famous Athlete—For Who? For What?

Huge amounts of government money helping higher education. That’s good, right? So, where does this massive amount of money end up? In particular, which institutions and which students benefit from this funding? Here’s Professor Wax.

In 2016, out of over 3,000 universities offering four-year degrees and about half as many two-year colleges nationwide, 20 institutions accounted for over 30 percent of federal spending, with 100 universities garnering 80 percent of the total.

Which universities receive the bulk of that government largesse? Draw up a list of the top elite schools, and you’ll be on the right track.

How many students do those schools serve?

College Scorecard estimates that out of 16.9 million students currently in degree-granting institutions, only 4 percent attend “elite” schools (defined as those accepting fewer than 25 percent of applications… Educational blogger Joseph Heath calculated that “the top 10 universities in the United States—a country of over 315 million people—at any given time are educating a grand total of only 62,150 students.” The most selective schools, attended by this small minority of students, also tend to be the richest

And who are these students?

Alumni of these prestigious, high-profile schools overwhelmingly hail from the most affluent and well-educated families. The Equality of Opportunity Project reported that 38 of the most highly ranked colleges, including five of the Ivies (Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, Penn, and Brown), had more students from households in the top 1 percent of income than from the bottom 60 percent. Ohio State economist Richard Vedder calculated that the proportion of bachelor’s degrees earned by students from the bottom quartile of family income has actually declined since the 1970s, despite a steady increase in federal means-tested financial aid.

  • But It’s Not Simply Rich People Helping Rich People

We’ve all read stories of disadvantaged students who graduate from elite universities and go out and make the world a better place. Elite schools and scholarship opportunities do change lives for nontraditional students, and such alumni (and alma mater) get deserved praise in the media when they win awards. I was delighted to write about Community College of Philadelphia and Temple University’s Hazim Hardeman in this space.

Good for our elite schools and for their graduates! Their work benefits all of us. I could quibble about so little of government money going to the schools that more directly benefit the many—including nontraditional students, but like Amy L. Wax I tend to focus more on what WE ordinary citizens do when it comes to giving our money to universities. And some of “us” have deep pockets.

  • Where Does the Big Donor Money Go in Higher Education?

So much of donor money supports worthy things. Like Michael Bloomberg’s $1.8 Billion donation in 2018 to Johns Hopkins, to make admission to qualified low- and middle-income applicants permanently need blind. https://www.chronicle.com/article/Largest-Private-Gifts-to/245708  Creating that opportunity at such a fine institution should be celebrated, and surely Bloomberg, who has burned his money on other causes lately, has the right to do whatever he wants with his cash, but think about that staggering price tag against the relatively small number of individuals that will benefit from his generosity. As so many Americans have asked of Bloomberg’s self-funded election campaign, what else could that money have done for America?

Scroll down that donor list and you’ll see the names of the usual beneficiaries of financial support. High rollers love the elite schools, generosity that would not raise an eyebrow, were opportunities for students from middle- and low-income families better than they are.

  • Give Yale More Money?

Several years ago, Dylan Matthews wrote convincingly in Vox about the problem of contributing to the elite universities. https://www.vox.com/2015/5/12/8590639/stephen-schwarzman-yale-donation His 2015 article focused on billionaire Stephen Swartzman’s $150 Million donation to Yale to build another performing arts center. Matthews believes that it is “hard to imagine a worse way to use the money that still entitles Schwarzman to a charitable tax deduction. Yale is not a charity. It is a finishing school that overwhelmingly serves children of wealth and privilege. Supporting its scientific and particularly biomedical research is worthwhile, but the school is already far richer than all but one of its peer institutions and has access to considerable federal funds in that area, as well. And, of course, Schwarzman isn’t supporting Yale’s biomedical research. He’s giving its dancers a nicer stage upon which to pirouette.” Ouch.

In another powerful and more recent article, Matthews puts Michael Bloomberg’s gift to Yale in an interesting perspective: “If Bloomberg wanted to address college affordability for the large mass of students, especially low-income students, he should’ve addressed that problem. Maybe he could have donated to the Maricopa County Community College District in Arizona, a state that’s cut higher education particularly hard since the recession; it has more than 220,000 students to Johns Hopkins’s 20,000 (grad students included). It could certainly use the money more. https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2018/11/19/18102994/michael-bloomberg-johns-hopkins-financial-aid-donation

  • Your Donation to Higher Education

In this space, I have urged graduates of elite universities and others to consider donating to the workhorse colleges instead of to wonderful universities that do not you’re your valuable money. I am hardly the first person to make such a suggestion, arguing against donating to the Ivies and their like. Author Malcolm Gladwell famously challenged the common practice of giving to one’s alma mater, no matter how little the institution actually needs your money.

Gladwell’s podcast http://dcs.megaphone.fm/PP7918990166.mp3?key=a6bc9841bdac89fbe9e7f7b9fe3b8606&listener=11ecdf14-071a-4f18-ae9b-913f49f0f993 provides the alternative in the example of Henry M. Rowan, whose gift to Glassboro State University in New Jersey (now Rowan University) impacted individuals from a wide socio-economic range.

He gave big money to a small state school that serves mostly local students. It changed the school in ways that impact student after student. But as Gladwell points out in his podcast, Rowan’s switch-up on the usual donor idea didn’t catch on with the big donors. Let’s hope that members of the “donor class” take Gladwell’s point and act more like Henry Rowan. That could be a turning point for even more lives.

What kind of institutions impact the nontraditional student? State universities and community colleges. As a 17-year-old son of single-mom, I attended Community College of Philadelphia (main photo), and six years later I joined the CCP faculty, where I witnessed the benefits of a community college as a teacher and counselor for nearly 40 years. Regardless of where you attended college, think about giving to YOUR nearby community college. Your money will make a difference in the lives of people near you.

A Last Note.

Sick of partisan political nonsense? You might have noticed that the articles quoted in this post represent publications from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Yet these two writers see the sense in supporting the colleges that give the biggest bang for the buck when it comes to helping nontraditional students.


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 nedbachus.com. City of Brotherly Love (Fleur-de-Lis Books), his book of  stories, was awarded the 2013 IPPY Gold Medal for Literary Fiction. Bachus’s article, “Learning From Turning Points in Our Teaching Lives,” was featured in the May 2019 issue of NEA Higher Education Advocate, which reaches over 150,000 college faculty in the U.S. http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/1901eAdvocate_ThrivingFinal.pdf