There is new data about charitable giving to American colleges and universities, and it demonstrates that we’re doing it wrong. This system is broken, in short. The latest information illustrates major, challenging trends in higher education.
It all comes from the Voluntary Support for Education survey, conducted by the Council for Aid to Education (CAE), and only accessible by purchase, so I’m proceeding by summaries and extracts published elsewhere.
To begin with, Americans are delighted to pour money upon… college sports. At a time when campuses question their very sustainability, when queen sacrifices are on the rise and inequality taking off, some colleges and universities received $1.2 billion for athletics.
Donations to capital campaigns for new facilities and commitments to cover more aid for athletes helped major-college athletic departments raise more than $1 billion in 2015, according to a report released on Wednesday by the Council for Aid to Education. It was the fourth time in the past five years that gifts for athletics had crossed the billion-dollar mark.
Please note that while some of this goes to scholarships for students, a big chunk goes elsewhere, to buildings and compensation for the wealthiest in sports:
money for increased compensation for coaches…
In the past three years, Texas A&M donors have contributed more than $350 million in cash and pledges toward the renovation of the university’s football stadium and other athletics projects…
Clemson University… raised $60.1 million. Nearly half of that came from major gifts toward a $176-million renovation of facilities for football, basketball, and other programs…
That money has helped cover large capital expenses, such as new practice facilities and stadium suites…
The total picture of giving for sports skews massively by wealth. Yes, educational inequality includes very unequal athletics. “As in previous years, the wealthiest programs accounted for most of the contributions.”
The top 20 athletic departments reported collective donations of about $670 million in 2015 — more than half of the $1.2-billion raised.
[B]ig athletic departments have seen a marked increase in philanthropic support. Last year they brought in nearly twice as much as in 2005, according to figures the council provided to The Chronicle, with an increasing number reporting annual contributions of at least $20 million. In 2005 just five colleges raised that much money for sports. Last year 25 did.
But giving to sports programs doesn’t cover even 3% of all higher education donations. The big picture is where the serious problem lies. Donors gave $40.3 billion to American colleges and universities last year, biased heavily towards the wealthiest institutions, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy . “Nearly 29 percent of all money raised in 2015 — $11.56 billion — went to just 20 colleges.”
That bias is not a temporary thing, nor is it going away. That skew is growing: “The proportion of donations going to the top fund-raising colleges has slowly increased over the past decade, said Ann E. Kaplan, survey director for CAE.” As Inside Higher Ed notes, “the richest institutions continue to distance themselves from the rest”. “[A] small and exclusive coterie of institutions is disproportionately benefiting from donors’ largesse.”
From that article, a useful chart:
This is happening when American states have reduced their per-student support to public colleges and universities. When income inequality has expanded greatly across the population. When, generally, we’ve decided to privatize higher education costs.
Charitable giving to higher education expresses rising inequality among academic institutions. Indeed, to the extent that it shapes program offerings and campus structures, these donations accelerate that inequality. IHE again: “The wealth gap in higher education is not a new story, by any means, but it is being fed, not closed, by the behavior of major donors.”
But maybe my post’s title is too harsh. Perhaps the system isn’t broken. We’re not doing it wrong. The system is working exactly as intended. Wealthy donors increasingly give to the richest institutions, with a variety of benefits: elite education for children, influence on research, influence on education, tax shelters, ego gratification.
We could be heading towards a closed loop system. The wealthy donate to super-wealthy campuses, attended increasingly by students from very wealthy families. In turn those students graduate from secondary schools increasingly segregated by income.
Ask yourselves, dear readers: is this what we want American higher education to be?
Faculty at the richest institutions, for whom faculty governance is a prized asset, do you still support this aspect of higher education financing?
If we focus on the positive aspects of this, that a good amount of donations head towards financial aid, have we decided to privatize financial aid? Indeed, has privatizing higher education added another frontier to its flight from public support? The investment angle is certainly in play:
Donors also are drawn to institutions that seem to be good stewards of their assets, [Ann E. Kaplan, survey director for CAE] said. They look to donate stock to a university with a high-performing endowment, for example, and art to a college with a prominent museum.
Higher education, an investment vehicle for the wealthy. When did we decide this was a good thing?
Put another way, is the charitable giving system broken, or just working as intended?