The Perpetuation of Privilege
On April 11, the president of Columbia University announced that it had received a $400 million pledge from alumnus John W. Kluge, who in 2006 was 52nd on the Forbes list of the wealthiest people, earning his fortune through the buying and selling of television and radio stations. This gift, payable upon the 92-year-old’s death, will be the fourth largest ever given to a single institution of higher education.
With such a massive transfer of wealth, the accolades poured in, justifying such a gift to an Ivy League university. Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, said: “The essence of America’s greatness lies, in no small measure, in our collective commitment to giving all people the opportunity to improve their lives… [Kluge] has chosen to direct his amazing generosity to ensuring that young people will have the chance to benefit from a Columbia education regardless of their wealth or family income.” Mayor Michael Bloomberg indicated that investing in education produces returns that can’t be matched. Rep. Charles Rangel said the gift would ensure greater numbers of students can afford a first-class education.
I am becoming less and less tolerant of people who pass wealth on to the privileged and masquerade it as philanthropy. Philanthropy is the voluntary act of donating money, goods or services to a charitable cause, intended to promote good or improve human well being. When a billionaire gives money that will benefit people who are more than likely already well off or who already have access to huge sums of money, attending the ninth richest university by endowment, this is not philanthropy. This simply extends the gross inequities that exist in our country -- inequities that one day will come home to roost.
Almost 40 percent of all college students nationally earned a Pell Grant, which in general represents students from families earning less than $35,000 a year. Yes, almost 40 percent of students in college today are from low income families. At Columbia, where tuition and fees alone tops $31,000, only 16 percent of students are Pell Grant eligible. In fact, over 60 percent of Columbia students don’t even bother to apply for federal financial aid. They can pay the bill -- no problem (see the Economic Diversity of Colleges Web site). Columbia is not alone. A recent New York Times article, which provided a great story on a recent Amherst College graduate, indicated that 75 percent of students attending elite colleges come from the top socioeconomic quartile, while only 10 percent come from the bottom half, and just 3 percent from the bottom quartile.
For comparison, 83 percent of my students received the Pell Grant during that same year, and 84 percent applied for financial aid. Even with tuition and fees less than $9,000 a year, my students on average will leave college with MORE debt than Columbia students, in fact $11,000 more even though tuition and fees are $22,000 a year less!
I am hopeful that Columbia will do as it states it will, which is to expand the number of scholarship grants to needy students. President Bollinger has been a strong advocate for affirmative action, and I am very hopeful because he has shown great integrity. But even assuming that Columbia spends the money on aid, and that it couldn’t spend more of its existing money on poor students, not to mention admitting more of them, the university’s current campaign has a goal of $1 billion for facilities – that’s an astronomical sum of “philanthropy” to help a wealthy institution have better facilities. And Columbia isn’t alone -- as there are similarly ambitious spending plans by the other public and private universities currently seeking to raise billions of dollars.
And the situation in which the wealthy get wealthier -- while feeling good about their “philanthropic” traditions -- isn’t much better in elite public higher education. Last fall, The Education Trust released “Engines of Inequality: Diminishing Equity in the Nation’s Premier Public Universities.” This report got little to no play nationally, and certainly nothing like the play the Columbia gift received, because the conclusions were a damning condemnation of higher education’s elite. In 2003, about 100 research extensive universities spent $257 million in financial aid for students from families earning over $100,000 a year, almost as much as that spent on students from families earning $20,000-40,000, and more than that spent on students from families earning less than $20,000. Again, much of these funds come from wealthy, image conscious alumni, praised for being philanthropists, who primarily want to ensure that their university has the best and brightest their money will buy.
The authors of the report indicate “these universities find it more important to use their own money to buy high-income students, who will almost inevitably attend an elite institution no matter what, than to expand the enrollment of… low-income students.” You see, paying to “educate” students who are the easiest to educate raises your rankings. In the process, you keep out poor kids, and incidentally, you will have fewer black and Latino students as well.
Yes, most of these enormous philanthropic gifts go to colleges with small numbers of African American, Latino and Native American students, America’s underrepresented people of color. In looking at a comparison of research extensive and top tier schools using the Economic Diversity of Colleges Web site, Columbia unfortunately has one of the higher percentages among the elite universities of black students at 9 percent, and of Latinos, at 10 percent. Most though are in single digits, and half are around 6-7 percent or less. The Education Trust’s study indicates that black, Latino and Native Americans are 24 percent of all college students, but only 12 percent at state flagships.
So the colleges with the greatest wealth and the best of everything that money can buy (from faculty to facilities), not only are underrepresented with poor students, but also restrict minority students from accessing these resources. If public universities can be called “gated communities of higher education,” private universities like Columbia are easily the country clubs.
America’s so-called philanthropists ignore these facts, and we continue to laud their generosity to the privileged. At the same time, people of color continue to fall further and further behind, and unless we begin to help those who actually need help, America’s economy will suffer.
In anther overlooked report from November 2005 entitled “As America Becomes More Diverse: The Impact of State Higher Education Inequality,” Patrick J. Kelly of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems begins by saying that social justice and equal opportunity should drive us toward seeking equality in higher education. But he asserts that there are also economic reasons.
The idea is simple. By 2020, there will be a 77 percent increase in the Hispanic population and a 32 percent increase in the black population, with less than a 1 percent increase for whites. In 1980, whites were 82 percent of the working age population. By 2020, they will be 63 percent of workers. From 1980 to 2000, the educational gap between whites and blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans has actually widened. Finally, those same people of color earn less than whites at all equivalent levels of education.
Kelly writes, “Substantial growth in the least-educated segments of our population combined with income disadvantages for the same populations will not lead us toward a brighter future…. If these problems are left unaddressed, the result is a less educated workforce and a decline in per capita personal income.”
And so I read with my general sense of despair as another billionaire gives millions to a university that serves a population that looks nothing like America presently or in the future, economically or racially. Politicians heap praises for these gifts from the wealthy to the wealthy while the vast majority of their constituents will never benefit from these acts. They’re too busy working three jobs and sending their kids to substandard elementary and high schools that will ensure they never go to places like Columbia.
This is not a sour grapes soliloquy. This is a cry for justice. I spend many nights trying to figure out how do colleges like mine, which have the students with the most need, both educationally and financially, catch the attention of those who have the power to transform the lives of the masses. Just think what $400 million would do at my college, which has an endowment of $12 million.
But this is a dream for colleges like mine. In fact, the record gift by individuals to any historically black college is a mere $20 million, given 20 years ago by Bill and Camille Cosby. We are left to maximize the Pell Grant which covers a fraction of what it did 30 years ago, as well as beg for corporate crumbs to assist our students. Occasionally in this quest to help even when the college can’t afford to do so, some colleges have improperly provided federal financial aid, which then creates an impression of incompetence. I know -- I inherited such a situation. While I don’t agree with what happened, I can tell you that the driving force was a desire to help someone graduate from college despite the limited resources. This Robin Hood approach only works in the movies though.
Our political leaders must begin to challenge the wealthy to practice real philanthropy. They should be encouraged to give gifts that will benefit a greater number of people with real need (most of their constituents), versus a wealthy minority. If that fails, everyone must know that our economy is on the verge of collapse as greater numbers of poorly educated, lower wage earning people of color become the majority of our workforce.
It is time for us to restore the integrity of philanthropy, and call gifts to the wealthy what they really are -- the perpetuation of privilege.
Walter M. Kimbrough is the president of Philander Smith College.