Graduation exercises at Harvard University on May 28, 2015 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Getty Images)
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.
Although offering some promise, this strategy has significant drawbacks. The biggest stumbling block is that a substantial portion of the students enrolled in less selective four- and two-year academic programs fail to complete their degrees. Despite state sponsorship and financing and relatively low costs, too many of the students who enroll in these institutions fail to increase their earning power. They end up incurring debts that they struggle to repay.
More resources for these students and their schools might help mitigate this problem somewhat but will not solve it. Lack of money is only one, and probably not the most important, factor preventing these students from completing their degrees. Lack of interest, poor preparation, family-based constraints, and the distractions and burdens of adult responsibilities play a significant role. These factors are not easily addressed by throwing more money at the problem.
The plain truth is that many young people are insufficiently interested in pursuing an academic post-secondary degree or are unsuited to this path. This is true not just because of high dropout rates and a rising debt burden but also due to the mismatch between the demands of the labor market and the skills and expectations of young jobseekers. American businesses complain about the quality of the American workforce and the chronic shortage of workers with the requisite skills for current jobs.
Vocational and job-oriented training programs are an important alternative to academic degrees. The Manhattan Institute’s Oren Cass argues that such options have long been neglected and starved for funding. The money allocated for vocational training and preparation, including many programs offered by the existing network of community colleges, is dwarfed by the amounts spent on students pursuing academic bachelor’s degrees.
As Cass and Isabel Sawhill have observed, “the federal government spends more than $160 billion to help people go to college via loans, tax credits and grants, versus around $20 billion on career and technical education and job training.” Of the $70 billion in funds controlled by the federal Department of Education directly in 2018, about half went to Pell grants (which support low income students mainly in four-year bachelor’s programs), but only $1.83 billion, or roughly 2.5 percent, to students for “Career, Technical, and Adult Education.” Adult education programs, which help high school graduates and drop-outs obtain job skills, received a paltry $630 million.
This anemic picture stands in contrast to how the rest of the world runs job preparation systems. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 40 percent to 70 percent of high school students in nearly every other developed country receive some kind of publicly subsidized vocational or technical education, with only a minority headed to traditional academic programs.
Myriad organizations, including prominent think tanks such as the Manhattan Institute, the Brookings Institution, and the American Enterprise Institute through its Opportunity America project, have proposed ways to better prepare high school graduates for existing jobs. Ideas have been put forth for various public/private skills training programs, including those modeled on the European apprenticeship system, that allow students to combine classroom-based instruction and on-the-job experience. Although apprenticeship-type training options have received growing attention in this country, they are still a tiny part of the post-secondary landscape. Also proposed has been the adoption of a system of tracking, like those in place in many European countries, that sorts elementary and high school students into academic and vocational pathways, and that also includes flexible crossover opportunities.
Private initiatives, funded by wealthy organizations, foundations, and individuals, can play an important role in developing these pathways. For instance, 60 Minutes recently profiled a project bankrolled by Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, that uses company resources and expertise to improve workplace training options in Detroit. These programs pay special attention to the specialized labor needs of local employers, and thus help to prepare trainees for success.
Projects like these need more generous funding as well as ideas and direction from private entities. Such investments could yield a range of positive economic effects. As Oren Cass has pointed out, by enhancing the pool of skilled but non-college-educated workers, these initiatives have the potential to promote the growth of small businesses that depend on honing that population’s skills.
While effective non-college and vocational programs await more extensive development, successful models already exist that are ripe for wider attention, expansion, and emulation. An exemplary and long-established institution is Williamson College of the Trades, profiled recently in City Journal by Kay Hymowitz. An all-male residential post-high school academy in Media, Pennsylvania, 14 miles west of Philadelphia, Williamson enrolls a few hundred young men, recent high school graduates drawn mostly from middle and low income backgrounds, who acquire skills in six different building trades and receive instruction related to all aspects of the construction industry. The curriculum at Williamson includes business methods and management, government regulation, contract negotiation, and public speaking.
As Hymowitz describes it, Williamson students “learn how to read blueprints, do basic accounting, write for business and industry. … All of them take speech class, whose results are noticeable to visitors in students’ poised self-presentation.” The school offers all students three years of free room and board and is run along demanding quasi-military lines. The structured routines of the school emphasize discipline, character, and the cultivation of good habits. There is a required dress code, mandatory attendance at morning flag-raising, and a code of behavioral rules designed to provide structure and teach personal responsibility, initiative, and self-control. Not surprisingly, Williamson students have an exceptional rate of job placement, with as many as 120 companies, including top construction and power plant firms, competing to hire its graduates. There is no question that the school has achieved exemplary success in setting young men from modest backgrounds on a path to lucrative careers in skilled trades as well as small business management and ownership.
Williamson is currently financed by a century-old endowment and donor and alumni generosity, but its resources are modest compared to well-known colleges and universities. This vocational school and the few places like it are not only far less numerous than institutions granting conventional academic degrees but are also off the radar screen of most big-money donors. This is a shame, because their successes are ripe for replication and expansion. Every city and community nationwide, mid-sized and up, should have at least one Williamson-type post-secondary school.
That goal requires educating potential donors about the existence of places like Williamson and their importance for students who are either uninterested in or ill-suited to an academic bachelor’s education. It also requires convincing benefactors that entities like Williamson are today more deserving of generosity than the already well-endowed academic-industrial complex of four-year college and university programs. Those goals in turn require effective publicity and fundraising. Ideally, some far-sighted donors would seed and direct such efforts to catch the eye of the wealthy titans and foundations that routinely give to the Ivies and their ilk. The goal should be to greatly increase contributions to Williamson itself as well as to establish Williamson-like schools in myriad cities throughout the country.
In addition to projects targeted at non-college-attending populations, there are other educational initiatives, also conferring broad benefits, that should command the attention of university benefactors. Although private donors have little direct power over public school curricula, several privately funded programs designed as supplements for K-12 students provide a richer and more balanced account of our history and government than what they’re getting from their textbooks while also imparting vital information for the exercise of democratic citizenship. The Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge, a national educational non-profit, hosts thousands of high school students nationwide in programs that encourage engaged, responsible citizenship and patriotic appreciation of American ideas and virtues. The organization also sponsors affiliated chapters that instruct on various aspects of American history, ideas, and government, leads special events on national holidays, and raises money for students to attend educational programs at the Foundation’s national campus. Operating along similar lines is the Philanthropy Roundtable’s high school education project, which functions as a clearinghouse connecting donors with a range of organizations and activities dedicated to enhancing civic literacy and appreciation for “core constitutional principles. . . and the fundamental rights and civic responsibilities of American citizenship.”
Finally, private money is essential to supporting real alternatives to the dominant progressive models of K-12 education, including options stressing knowledge acquisition and a traditional, classical curriculum that has all but disappeared today. Natalie Wexler’s recent book, The Knowledge Gap, argues persuasively that an information-rich, culturally informed curriculum is essential to raising the prospects of less-advantaged children and reducing educational inequality. Wexler’s approach stands as an alternative to the student driven, process-oriented model that currently dominates public education and is favored by university-based schools of education. Breaking the grip of that model and the education schools that promote it will not be easy because those schools have a monopoly on training teachers, but private donors can help by funding K-12 institutions that provide parents with alternatives.
One example of an elementary school that departs from the dominant progressive model is the Main Line Classical Academy in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania. According to the school’s mission statement, students “explore the finest of literature and poetry in English, French, and, starting in fourth grade, in Latin; come to appreciate the depth and beauty of mathematics; and experience encounters with great historical heroes, scientific discoveries, religious disputes, and military enterprises.”
What about projects outside the education sphere? The problems of ordinary people and communities are complicated and often not amenable to the kinds of straightforward fixes that money can buy. Nonetheless, there is an endless list of potential projects awaiting support from wealthy donors and elite college graduates interested in improving life for people of modest means and background. On that list would be: improving and upgrading public spaces, promoting small local businesses and entrepreneurship, assisting and supervising prisoner reentry into society, mentoring low-income children, supplementing music and arts education and local arts development, setting up and bankrolling low-cost clinics and grants for eye and dental care, creating citizen forums and affordable festivals of ideas, and financing and organizing local job fairs. Initiatives of these types already exist in many places, of course, but are often precarious, poorly organized, lacking in sophisticated support, and chronically underfunded. Applying the money now pouring into universities to these types of projects could help greatly.
Apart from the challenge of identifying worthy philanthropic outlets, perhaps the most formidable obstacle to persuading people to stop giving to high-profile universities is also the hardest to overcome: simple self-interest. Even donors displeased with the current state of academia are reluctant to question or second-guess what happens on campus because they want to stay on the good side of the people in charge, especially at the most selective and sought-after institutions. As Bryan Caplan argues in The Case Against Education, elite colleges increasingly serve as gatekeepers to lucrative, prestigious positions and to membership in the upper middle class. But just as getting into a top-rated college is now more important than ever, it is also more difficult. This creates the “Little Caitlin” problem: alumni and donors are intent upon gaining admission slots for their children, relatives, and friends, or at least not jeopardizing their chances. Criticizing universities for political bias and administrative bloat or conditioning largesse on serious institutional reforms risks irritating and alienating the academic powers-that-be. Giving generously while looking the other way is the safest bet.
Perceived self-interest, and the opportunity to curry favor with university gatekeepers, are not the only reasons that alumni and the wealthy donate so much to higher education. Nostalgia for bright college years, the pride and loyalty engendered by elite university affiliation, and the perks and status enjoyed by generous donors, alumni, and trustees all play a role. A genuine desire to do good also undoubtedly motivates many benefactors. Prominent, big name universities, and especially the Ivies, still retain an elevated reputation. Primed by glossy alumni magazines and elaborate public relations campaigns, many people, and especially elite graduates, still believe that prominent universities foster excellence, educate the best and brightest, promote upward mobility, and encourage the acquisition of knowledge for the benefit of society as a whole. These idealized understandings ignore the academy’s skewed demographic profile, checkered admission practices, growing insularity, and increasingly pervasive politicization. Alumni and donors have little incentive to probe the reality, dispel the illusions, and adopt a critical stance.
These obstacles also stand in the way of other measures, short of wholesale “defunding,” that have been floated to render universities less politically one-sided, wasteful, and expensive, or to at least blunt their outsized power and influence. Education scholars Frederick Hess and Grant Addison have proposed that employers cease requiring a bachelor’s degree for positions that do not require college-level skills, and that the law be changed to penalize such excess credentialism. Dan Akst, writing in the Los Angeles Times, has suggested that alumni and donors be more aggressive about imposing conditions on their largesse, such as insisting that beneficiary institutions commit to campus free speech. Worthy organizations, such as the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), have long tried to encourage greater alumni and donor involvement in the conduct of university business. Unfortunately, there is scant evidence that these sorts of initiatives have had much effect on the direction and practices of the higher education establishment. As long as the big money spigot continues to flow, academia will remain fat, happy, and impervious to change. Without a dramatic reduction in financial support, the universities will continue to push a left-leaning agenda, to spend liberally on administrative infrastructure, and to drive up costs and increase student tuition.
What about science? Any attempt to persuade potential benefactors to “defund the Ivies” in favor of non-academic and non-elite priorities comes up against the laudable and understandable desire to promote scientific and technological progress, which stands to improve life for everyone. Elite universities, and especially their graduate departments and medical schools, would appear to be well equipped to conduct quality research and to educate the next generation of cutting-edge scientists, with the highest ranked universities showing the most promise in this regard.
Although university science will continue to attract wealthy benefactors, potential donors need to be made more aware of some troubling trends in how science research and education are presently conducted in universities. Like other parts of academia, the scientific and medical establishment has become increasingly oriented towards promoting a left-leaning political agenda through the creation of programs and activities focused on fashionable “social justice” goals, including the promotion of “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” These developments are driven partly by the relentless proliferation of mandates, rules, and criteria imposed by governmental grant-giving and regulatory agencies. These agencies establish priorities for research that are often tenuously related to the goals of developing new knowledge, threaten the rigor of long-standing standards and practices, and also require the creation of an expensive, extensive compliance apparatus. Outside pressure from identity groups and campus activists increasingly influences all aspects of scientific research and governance, including student admissions, faculty hiring and promotion, the choice of research projects and goals, and the scientific results and conclusions that are deemed worthy of publication in prestigious outlets and journals. A glance at pivotal publications, such as the New England Journal of Medicine, reveals an ever more intense preoccupation with fashionable issues of policy, diversity, equity, and “social justice,” both in the medical research published and in other articles appearing in its pages.
Another alarming trend is the adoption by university math, science, and engineering departments of litmus tests in the form of “diversity statements” required from people seeking academic positions and admission to graduate programs. It is the official policy of the University of California system, for instance, to ask students, fellows, and faculty applicants to profess and demonstrate their commitment to “diversity, equity and inclusion,” which entails showing how their presence, activities, and research will contribute to those goals as defined by the university administration. One Berkeley engineering professor, writing to the Wall Street Journal, states that “top technical people” have been rejected by STEM departments “on the basis of not having an ‘adequate’ [diversity and inclusion] statement,” which makes recruitment of qualified staff “very difficult.” An officer of the American Mathematical Association, noting that “the diversity ‘score’ is becoming central in the hiring process” in math departments, has recently criticized the demand for diversity statements as transparently “political” and “a mistake.” Yet the trend is widespread and growing, with stalwart support from within the university science establishment itself.
In addition to threatening to distort scientific and meritocratic goals, diversity-related mandates in university science departments require the support of a burgeoning and costly administrative apparatus charged with overseeing compliance with diversity requirements in all aspects of its activities, including admissions, hiring, project design, and grant procurement. This bureaucracy, which is now a ubiquitous feature of the university scientific establishment, increasingly commands the time and attention of highly trained doctors, scientists, and other personnel, distracting them from their core research mission. The perusal of any university medical school website reveals the steady expansion and growing priority assigned to these activities. The highly ranked University of Pennsylvania Medical School, for example, contains an inclusion and diversity office employing a roster of staff, physicians, and other personnel to support a range of activities that include conferences, “bias” training sessions, “anchor” programs (designed to cater to identity-based interest groups), oversight of faculty searches, grant-writing sessions, and community outreach.
How is this elaborate administrative apparatus paid for? Recent articles in prominent scientific journals (Nature and Science) reveal that a large portion of the government grants devoted to university-based medical and scientific research—sometimes as much as two-thirds of the total amount—is earmarked for institution-wide overhead. In the same vein, private funds given for university science typically include an amount designated for institutional overhead and support, albeit generally as a smaller percentage than for government-sponsored grants. Universities enjoy wide discretion to devote these funds to a range of purposes, including priorities and activities, such as diversity-related bureaucracies and initiatives, that have never been shown to advance scientific and technological goals and might even function to subvert them.
Given that more and more universities are using funds earmarked for research for purposes only tenuously related to its actual conduct, potential donors who want to support science should consider more targeted giving. One alternative is to provide money to free-standing research institutions, which tend to be leaner, nimbler, more mission-focused, and less bloated than the university science establishment. They are also less encumbered by expensive education-related regulations and extraneous, distracting priorities.
Examples of science done right include the Salk Institute, an independent, non-profit biological research entity in San Diego, the Cold Spring Harbor Biological Laboratory on Long Island, and the growing network of free-standing cancer centers that provide care and clinical research on treatment with new drugs and experimental therapies nationwide, including the private multi-state Sarah Cannon cancer centers. Dedicating more money to these operations and establishing new ones would bring valuable discipline to the scientific establishment and result in more resources being used for actual research rather than for distracting, unproven, and politically partisan priorities that increasingly hold sway at research universities.
Another important impediment to the goal of reorienting philanthropy from prominent universities to more broad-based projects is that wealthy donors and alumni are less likely than ever to be familiar with the circumstances of those outside their narrow social class. As Charles Murray detailed in his book Coming Apart, elite college graduates increasingly tend to cluster together in insular upscale communities, where they are seldom exposed to the problems facing ordinary people or the existing efforts to address them. For this reason, most affluent donors, large and small, will need help in finding effective causes and meritorious targets for their generosity that will actually help average citizens outside their social class.
Unfortunately, organizations operating at the community level tend to be scattered, small-scale, and decentralized. They cannot afford a sophisticated fundraising apparatus. Nor do they possess the resources, personnel, infrastructure, or expertise to identify and recruit donors or to ensure that their money is well spent. Most high-profile universities, in contrast, include well-developed fundraising and public relations operations. They articulate clear, familiar, and appealing objectives, which makes them ideal targets of philanthropy.
An important opportunity thus exists to help match higher education donors and alumni to alternative worthwhile projects while also ensuring that their generosity is used effectively. New brokers could inform individuals and foundations about small, community-based initiatives, recruit benefactors, and ensure that the targets of largesse are worthy and well run. Ideally, these entities would oversee, monitor, and advise on projects and assess their effectiveness.
Examples of such organizations already exist. GiveWell and the Bridgespan Group are two organizations that evaluate charities, attract philanthropists, and help manage and improve funded initiatives and organizations. Donors Trust and the Philanthropy Roundtable connect wealthy benefactors with charitable activities across a range of domains, including health care, civic education, and assistance to veterans and poor families.
More organizations along these lines are needed. It is especially important to expand the reach of philanthropy to novel projects and to previously neglected and underserved populations. Capable people, including well-connected graduates of prestigious universities, should be encouraged to get involved in developing attractive alternatives to donating to colleges and universities and in persuading alumni and others to target their generosity to previously underserved populations.
Meanwhile, the steady stream of outsized grants to high-profile academic institutions continues uninterrupted. Some more recent examples include the Bass family bequest of $150 million to renovate the Peabody Museum at Harvard; Michael Bloomberg’s $1.8 billion grant to Johns Hopkins, his alma mater; the Lord Foundation’s announcement of $1 billion for three prominent universities (MIT, Duke, USC) and the Cleveland Clinic; and the Carey Foundation’s donation of $125 million to the University of Pennsylvania Law School, on the condition that it be renamed the Carey School of Law.
All of this generosity went to prestigious and already well-endowed institutions that educate mostly well-off students. As a recent Penn Law graduate has pointed out, the Carey Foundation’s support for Penn Law serves as a “luxury” for an already wealthy school, which draws its students from the top of the applicant pool and sends most of its graduates into well-paying jobs at elite law firms.
When asked how he would spend “a gift similar to the one U Penn received” from Carey, Michael Rounds, director of Williamson College of the Trades, began his response with “wow.” “A gift of that magnitude,” he explained, “would allow us to build new dorms and facilities required to add additional programs that we don’t currently have—like electrical, and HVAC, and plumbing, improve student life, AND DOUBLE our current enrollment.” The new enrollees wouldn’t be burdened because all Williamson students receive free room, board, and education.
Unfortunately, as Rounds pointed out, Williamson’s current budget constraints force it to be overly selective: “We are only able to take about 25 percent of qualified applicants—roughly 100 new freshmen each year.” With more money, the school could easily scale up. “We have the overhead in place and plenty of space on campus (over 200 acres) to expand our program,” he said, “but our current endowment revenue is only sufficient to cover 70 percent of what we need for the annual budget.”
Rounds also noted that more funds on the order of recent bequests to the Ivies “could be used to build Williamson-like junior colleges in other locations—including colleges that could be for young women or coed—there are many variations of this model that could work well.”
Our nation would be better off if the billions of dollars now streaming into academic higher education, and especially to the wealthiest and most selective institutions, went instead to support schools like Williamson, which have negligible endowments and are starved for funds. Foundations like Carey and Lord, and elite alumni generally, should use their money to establish Williamson-type residential colleges for the skilled trades throughout the United States, including in every large and medium sized city nationwide.
That project would take money, and lots of it. It would also require a sea change in our understanding of our nation’s current needs and most pressing priorities. We are a country of immense prosperity but it is a prosperity that is serving too few of us well. Wealthy donors should turn away from elite higher education and shift their attention toward helping the non-college population of young people from modest backgrounds find their way to useful employment, self-support, and constructive, fuller lives.
Amy L. Wax is the Robert Mundheim Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.