Donors Should Abandon Their Ivy League Alma Maters

Amy L. Wax

Editor’s note: This article was originally published by The American Conservative on March 2, 2020 and appears in the March/April issue. Read this article in full on The American Conservative.


Academia ought to be in crisis right now, as Americans increasingly doubt the value of a college education.

Pollsters at Gallup found that the percentage of persons regarding a college degree as “very important” has dropped from 71 percent in 2013 to 50 percent today. The National Association of Scholars issued a recent, damning report that presents universities as dominated by a progressive social justice agenda which distorts teaching and research and presents a one-sided picture of our national problems.

Critics have also faulted the academy for a dramatic increase in elaborate bureaucracies, expensive new buildings, and unproven programs. These developments have driven up costs, which in turn has burdened many students with heavy loans that contribute to economic distress and inequality. Yet universities continue to command generous public and private support. State and federal governments spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year on university programs, infrastructure, and subsidized student loans and grants. This money is not evenly distributed. 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. Various proposals have been floated to reduce the degree of public support for colleges and universities and thereby force higher education to be more accountable, responsive, and thrifty. These austerity arguments have so far had little effect.

Money from non-governmental sources is also a vital revenue stream. Selective colleges and universities (defined as those that turn away most of their applicants) are especially dependent on generous contributions from alumni and big donors to fund elaborate infrastructure, extensive programs, and lavish amenities. These features are in turn used to attract top student and faculty talent to their ranks. Universities, and especially elite ones, regularly receive large gifts and generous grants from alumni, foundations, and wealthy individuals.

Such support has increased steadily in recent years. In the fiscal year ending in June 2017, four-year colleges and universities raised $43.6 billion from personal, individual, and voluntary gifts, marking a 6.3 percent increase from the year before. Highly ranked and already well-endowed institutions take in the largest sums, with schools like California Institute of Technology, Columbia University, and Harvard University each receiving hundreds of millions annually. Wealthy individuals give the most. The top 10 percent of donors account for over 90 percent of the dollars raised, with the size of the average gift growing steadily since the 1980s.

The flow of private money into higher education from alumni and other sources shows little sign of abating. This article questions the wisdom of these gifts. Alumni, private individuals, and foundations ought to rethink their generosity to academic higher education. This is especially true for the already well-endowed universities, including the Ivies, that receive the lion’s share of funds.

Why should private donors stop giving to higher education? University benefactors should be made more aware of the one-sided ideological profile of faculty and administrators and the relentless growth of the university bureaucracy and infrastructure that is driving up costs. They need to realize that the present volume of private money helps make universities impervious to pressure to reform some of their troubling practices, including their political tilt, their intolerance of dissent, and their burgeoning administrative apparatus.

Yet even for alumni and donors who are untroubled by these trends, there are still compelling reasons to redirect their generosity. What should benefactors do with the money that they would ordinarily devote to academic higher education generally? A strong case can be made for spending their money on projects and initiatives that improve the lives of ordinary, unspecial people, and especially those without a college degree. This group, which still comprises the majority of the country’s population, tends to be overlooked by philanthropists and foundations even as it fails to qualify for many types of assistance to the poor. Such people are in far more need of help today than the elite individuals who directly benefit from the billions spent on selective colleges and universities.

Perhaps the most effective way to persuade alumni and donors to “defund the Ivies” in favor of other projects directed at the non-college population is to highlight how few people actually attend and receive degrees from four-year academic universities. Although about 50 percent of high school graduates eventually enroll in four-year college programs, only about half of those graduate within 6 years. An additional 15 percent or so of high school graduates attend community college, but a majority of those fail to ever obtain even a 2-year degree.

Students at the most selective institutions represent a tiny slice of the population. College Scorecard estimates that out of 16.9 million students enrolled currently in degree-granting institutions, only 4 percent attend “elite” schools (defined as those accepting fewer than 25 percent of applicants), with most enrolled in colleges that accept virtually all applicants. Education 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. All but three of the 20 universities with the largest endowments turn away most of their applicants.

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.

Although the media routinely highlights stories about disadvantaged but deserving students who make their way to top-ranked schools, such cases are exceptional and few. Selective universities only rarely function as engines of upward mobility. By funneling already affluent students into elite jobs, they maintain existing inequalities rather than reduce them.

Some commentators have begun to question the wisdom of donating to wealthy institutions of higher learning and are recommending that philanthropists search for alternative uses for their largesse. In 2015, Dylan Matthews pleaded in Vox with “rich people” to “please stop giving Ivy League colleges money.” Malcolm Gladwell has lately observed that reducing donations to higher education would free up money for ventures that benefit a broader swath of Americans. And a recent editorial in the University of Pennsylvania school newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, urges alumni to resist calls to give to their alma mater by “consider[ing] whether you’re really giving money to those who need it most.” It recommends that alumni search out local community-based and small-bore projects that help ordinary people of modest means and that tend to be overlooked.

A serious impediment to persuading donors to redirect their generosity towards this broader swath of “those who need it most” is identifying viable and worthwhile ways to improve the lives of previously neglected populations. How can we help the large numbers of people who never get near selective institutions?

Philanthropists interested in higher education could shift their generosity towards less selective and wealthy institutions, including the extensive network of community colleges, lesser known state-run colleges, and small, struggling, unselective private colleges. After all, these schools educate many times more students than the elite universities favored by the wealthiest donors.

Read the full article at The American Conservative.


Amy L. Wax is the Robert Mundheim Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and is a member of the National Association of Scholars’ Board of Directors.


Photo by Jahsie Ault on Unsplash

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