With his $1.8 billion gift to Johns Hopkins University, Michael Bloomberg made the largest donation in history to a higher education institution and certainly the most high-profile gift directed towards scholarships in recent memory.
Still, the staggering sum is likely to only make a small dent in America’s college affordability problem.
With the help of Bloomberg, a Johns Hopkins graduate, the school plans to eliminate the consideration of a student’s ability to pay in its admissions process. Going forward the school will also get rid of loans in its financial aid offers.
These steps will help the school reach a broader goal of increasing the share of its enrollment that’s eligible for Pell grants to 20% by 2023, up from approximately 12% currently, according to government data . (Pell grants are the money the government provides low-income students to attend college for free.)
‘Admitting solely based on merit, that’s impossible when money has structured the things that make you meritorious.’
Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at Temple University
Despite those laudable goals, the donation highlights the inequality present in our higher education system. Like many of the universities that tend to be recipients of eye-popping donations, Johns Hopkins serves a small share of the nation’s college students and low-income students in particular. At the same time, the community college and less-selective public university systems that the vast majority of college students attend are often scrambling for resources
“It’s important that this donation is going to help Johns Hopkins serve more low-income students, but for me it’s still money that would be better spent at a college that is already doing this work and at a much larger scale,” said Antoinette Flores, an associate director for post-secondary education at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.
To get a sense of how far $1.8 billion might go if pumped into some of these public college systems, just look at Tennessee. There officials set aside $350 million — or about one-fifth of the $1.8 billion Bloomberg donated to Johns Hopkins — to make community college free in the state. Though there are some caveats to the Tennessee offer, so far about 50,000 students have taken advantage of the program.
Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at Temple University who regularly works with community colleges and other less-selective institutions to help their students navigate financial challenges they face in school, said $1.8 billion could “transform” these types of schools. “Somebody gives a $100,000 to a community college and the president falls over with joy,” she said.
These colleges could use the funds to help their students pay for living expenses, often one of the biggest barriers to low-income students completing college, she said. They could also use the money to provide more advising and other resources that would help students make it through school faster.
“For somebody who says he cares about inequality and for somebody who wrote [in The New York Times] that he did this to make college affordable, there’s something off about donating to such an elite, gated institution,” she said. Both Johns Hopkins and Bloomberg Philanthropies didn’t immediately respond to a request for more information on the donation.
Bloomberg wants to get rid of low-income barriers to education
Bloomberg in part aims to get rid of some of the barriers low-income students face accessing Johns Hopkins. That makes the mega-gift rare in the sense that it’s dedicated towards helping low- and moderate-income students afford school instead earmarked for research, a building or the launch of a new program. Among overall gifts to college endowments, donations restricted to financial aid represented about 37.5% in 2017, according to the Voluntary Support for Education, a survey that tracks private gifts to universities.
Bloomberg has tried to chip away at the challenges low-income students face accessing top colleges through other programs too, including the American Talent Initiative , a collective of colleges that graduate at least 70% of their students and have vowed to graduate an additional 50,000 lower-income students by 2025. The initiative is supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies.
But even if relatively elite colleges vow to eliminate cost as an obstacle that still may do little to actually increase the number of low-income students attending these schools, Goldrick-Rab said. That’s because access to the kinds of things that make students look good in front of admissions committees — high test scores, rigorous coursework, interesting extracurricular activities etc. — are strongly correlated with wealth.
“Admitting solely based on merit, that’s impossible when money has structured the things that make you meritorious,” she said.
Bloomberg’s donation fits into a broader trend of wealthy Americans using philanthropy to preserve the systems that made them successful, said Anand Giridharadas, the author of “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.”
‘If you are a person of power and privilege I believe you have a moral responsibility to fight to change the system that unduly benefits you.’
Anand Giridharadas, the author of ’Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.’
That Bloomberg and other wealthy donors have so much wealth that they can give their alma maters more than $1 billion is a reflection of a systematic choices — including, but not limited to fact that college isn’t free or affordable for most students, Giridharadas said.
Instead of putting money towards changing these systems — by funding efforts to make college free across the country or by making it easier for low-income students to get access to decent public K-12 education, for example — wealthy donors tend to funnel their money into causes that keep the system they benefited from in place, Giridharadas said.
“I would argue his gift preserves a ‘winner takes all’ society and helps a few more people win,” he said of Bloomberg’s donation to Hopkins. “If you are a person of power and privilege I believe you have a moral responsibility to fight to change the system that unduly benefits you.”
There are examples of this type of philanthropy in higher education. Mark Huelsman, the associate director of policy and research at Demos, a progressive think tank, points to the Kalamazoo Promise. In 2005, a group of anonymous donors made a gift to the city of Kalamazoo to send all of its high school graduates to college for free.
That donation helped a broad swath of students be able to afford college and pushed the city to build up its public schools and other programs to help prepare students to take advantage of the offer.
But even if more donors adopt that kind of approach, it won’t be enough to transform our higher education system. “We cannot rely entirely on philanthropy to get us out of the college affordability crisis,” Huelsman said.