Ethical College Admissions: The Bloomberg Gift

The windfall for Hopkins raises many issues but is still worth some praise, especially when considering the policies of most private colleges, writes Jim Jump.

November 26, 2018

In a New York Times op-ed last Sunday, billionaire Michael Bloomberg announced that he is donating $1.8 billion to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, to provide financial aid for low- and middle-income students. That gift is nearly three times the previous largest gift made to an institution of higher learning. Broad Institute, the biomedical and genomic research center affiliated with Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, previously received a gift of $650 million, while both Columbia University and CalTech have received $600 million gifts.

It is too soon to know the impact of Bloomberg’s generosity. It will clearly provide Johns Hopkins with resources possessed by only a small number of elite institutions, and it is likely that Michael Bloomberg was among the blessings mentioned by name at Thanksgiving dinners held at numerous households in the Johns Hopkins family. But will it fundamentally change Johns Hopkins, and will it enhance access to higher education in general?

It didn’t take long for critics to question Bloomberg’s motives and wisdom in making the gift to Johns Hopkins.

Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City, has been mentioned as a possible Democratic candidate for president in 2020, and there are certainly parts of the op-ed that read like a campaign speech:

America is at its best when we reward people based on the quality of their work, not the size of their pocketbook.

Denying students entry to a college based on their ability to pay … strikes at the heart of the American dream: the idea that every person, from every community, has the chance to rise based on merit.

There may be no better investment that we can make in the future of the American dream -- and the promise of equal opportunity for all.

Is Bloomberg’s gift a double-edged campaign sword? Other contenders for the nomination may talk about college accessibility, even free college, but he’s already done something. The gift may also be a way to contrast his record of philanthropy with that of other billionaires he might oppose in the general election.

Other questions have been raised about the gift itself. Is that large a gift to an already wealthy university the best use of the funds? Would a similar-size gift be more transformative and impact more lives at places like Goucher College, the University of Maryland Baltimore County, Morgan State University or Baltimore City Community College? Are the funds better spent on college admission or college completion, or is college too late? Would a comparable investment in third-world health issues bring more return on investment?

For that matter, why not start a new institution altogether? It’s been done before. Late in the 19th century, several of America’s premier universities, places like Stanford, the University of Chicago, Carnegie-Mellon and, yes, Johns Hopkins, were founded thanks to philanthropic gifts from wealthy industrial magnates. Bloomberg’s gift to Johns Hopkins exceeds the endowment of all but approximately 50 colleges and universities nationwide. But would it make sense to start a new college or university at a time when so many institutions are in danger of closing?

The answer is the same as the answer to every question about college admission -- it depends. It depends on whether colleges have life spans like shopping malls, with newer and glitzier inevitably taking market share from tried and no longer true. And it depends on the purpose of higher education.

Is higher education an engine of social mobility? Elite colleges and universities are engines of social mobility only if rich to richer counts as mobility. For all the talk about the importance of diversity, there is far too little socioeconomic diversity at the Ivies and similar colleges and universities, with more students from the top 1 percent of incomes attending than from the bottom 60 percent. A 2017 study published by the National Bureau for Economic Research concluded that students from households in the top 1 percent of income are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy than students from the bottom quintile of family income. A new college model devoted to making the ideal of college as path to the American dream a reality for those who have grown up in low-income households would be a welcome addition to the landscape of higher education.

The question is whether Bloomberg’s gift will make Hopkins a laboratory for that change. Johns Hopkins has committed to increasing the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants from 12 percent to 20 percent by 2023, but will the funds donated by Bloomberg promote more substantive changes in the student body?

In his op-ed, Bloomberg claims that his gift will “make admissions at Hopkins forever need-blind.” Let’s evaluate that statement.

The term “need-blind admission” incorporates two distinct propositions. One is that admission decisions will be made without concern for ability to pay. The other is that institutions will meet the full need of accepted students. Prior to the 1990s, the ethics of college admission required institutions to do both, but for economic reasons there are few colleges and universities today who have the ability to do both of those. In recent years liberal arts colleges like Wesleyan University and Haverford College have had to back away from their philosophical commitment to need-blind admission for financial reasons. The Bloomberg gift provides Hopkins with a financial cushion to maintain its policy of need-blind admission.

“Need-blind” may no longer be the correct term. Today most private institutions are “need-visually impaired,” making the vast majority of admission decisions without concern for financial need but “peeking” on the margins, with need being an issue for the last 5 to 10 percent of decisions and in admitting students off the wait list.

Where the Bloomberg gift helps Hopkins is on the financial aid packaging side of the house. It gives Johns Hopkins the ability to meet a student’s entire financial need with gift aid, something only a handful of colleges and universities are currently able to do. Abolishing loans as part of a student’s financial aid package lessens the student’s debt burden after graduation, and it gives Hopkins a competitive advantage compared with many of the universities with which it competes for students. I’m sure Hopkins hopes the combination of the policy and publicity arising from the Bloomberg gift will make Hopkins more selective, which could conceivably work against the goal of increasing accessibility.

Will Bloomberg’s gift lead to an admissions process based on merit? That’s a more complicated issue. Many of the metrics for merit, such as test scores, are ultimately measures of socioeconomic privilege.

Michael Bloomberg should be congratulated and thanked for his gift to Johns Hopkins. We can certainly argue about whether there was a better use of the funds, but in showing gratitude for the forces that aided his success he is setting an example for others to follow. If only federal and state governments were as willing to invest in young people and their futures.

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Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher's since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women's basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


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