Sharing the Wealth

While opposing the push to regulate endowment spending, Sharon Herzberger writes that institutions of means could make more of a difference for low-income students beyond their own campuses.

May 1, 2008

About 50 institutions now possess more than half of the money in college and university endowments nationwide. These institutions enroll fewer than 2 percent of the nation’s students, and their student bodies are disproportionately wealthy.

What then happens to the other, less wealthy 98 percent, and the lesser endowed colleges and universities teaching them?

I often chuckle when I hear colleagues from bountifully endowed institutions talk about their financial strains and stresses, and the myriad challenges to enrolling a more racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse student body.

Whittier College, where I serve as president, enrolls a student body that is this country’s future. With 27 percent Latinos, 42 percent declared students of color overall, an estimated one-third first-generation college students, and young people from wealthy families sitting beside colleagues from poor families, Whittier presents an extraordinary learning environment for students of all backgrounds.

But let me be honest. While we set out at our founding to be a college where students respect and learn from difference, I can find nothing in our history to suggest that we set out to enroll a goodly proportion of financially needy students. With an endowment over $80 million, by far we cannot count ourselves among the so-called “have-not” institutions. But, unlike our bountifully endowed peers, we are not wealthy enough to meet all of our students’ financial needs.

Congresswoman Linda Sánchez visits our campus occasionally and talks to students about arriving in Washington, having been elected to the House of Representatives, with educational loans still to pay. She assures students that a college education is worth it. But does it need to be this way? Is it right that some students take on huge loan debt or work excessive numbers of hours to earn a high quality college degree?

I ponder these questions as I think about our mission and our student body. One thing is clear. Colleges like Whittier cannot and should not accomplish this mission alone. Through collaboration with peers and with our government, as well as a little “out-of-the-box” thinking, we may be able to tackle this issue on a unified front and benefit all.

Many of the nation’s wealthiest colleges and universities now provide full tuition waivers to students from the poorest families. However worthy these initiatives, perhaps we should ask for more. For example, what if the 50 best endowed universities and 50 of the wealthiest small colleges announced that they will work towards doubling within five years the number of students they recruit from the lowest socioeconomic class and doubling their financial aid budgets as well. Having educated a disproportionate number of the rich for so many years, now they become the champions of the poor. And if they accomplished this without enlarging their student body, the new socioeconomic mix will produce significant educational benefits for all.

Or here’s another strategy: The well endowed colleges and universities can partner with a nearby institution that is already assuming the task of educating the needier students of this country, perhaps sharing administrative functions or providing additional financial aid. A better idea may be for wealthy universities to pay the loan burdens accrued to achieve an undergraduate degree of anyone entering their graduate or professional programs.

State and federal governments must do their share as well. A simple solution, of course, is to provide increased grant aid directly to students coming to college from low-income families. Another strategy would be for governments to offer additional tax incentives to individuals and businesses that make gifts of financial aid to the not-so-bountifully-endowed schools. Rather than demand minimum pay-out rates from endowments in an attempt to keep the wealthy institutions from getting wealthier, Congress could encourage donations to the less wealthy schools, thus building through private philanthropy the resources of a broader array of colleges and universities. What a boost that would have on the institutions now doing more than their share of educating the nation’s poorest citizens.

Universities and colleges have differing, important missions. Some are research universities; some serve those of a particular religious persuasion; others feel that serving women or men is their cause. But can any college or university fail to include as a mission to serve the underserved?

I have posed only a few ideas, and I encourage this nation’s leaders to think of others. As demographers tell us, in 10 years our college-age population is going to be in a vastly different place, and our nation’s higher education system needs to be in a different place too. We must all take responsibility for promoting education as a public good and for educating all segments of this nation’s youth.


Sharon Herzberger is president of Whittier College.


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