Tuesday, March 04, 2008


A week or so ago, my husband printed off an article from The New York Times on the widening gap became those colleges and universities with the mega endowments, and those without.

No surprise that Fair Harvard leads the endowment pack with $34.9 billion - which grew by $5.7 billion last year alone. (This $5.7 billion figure is larger than the total endowments of all but 14 other schools.) Harvard's endowment in 1990 was a measly $4.4 billion. Looks like 10,000 Men of Harvard *- and a handful of money managers of Harvard - wrote some hefty checks and did some pretty smart money management over the years.

Harvard's endowment, of course, enables them to do some wonderful things, like giving financial aid to students from what can only be termed upper-middle class families. And some not so wonderful things, like buying up Cambridge and Alston, decreasing the tax base. (I do think they pay fairly high "in lieu" of fees to both Cambridge and Boston. At least for the sake of my property tax bill, I hope they do.)

Well, good for them, a big part of me says.

They have generous alumni who look benevolently upon them and each and every year swell their coffers.

But when we're at the point where a kid from a family making $180,000 will end up picking up less of their educational tab than a student at UCal Berkeley coming from a $90,000 a year income family, you have to ask yourself whether this endowment disparity is all for the good.

According to the article, of the 4,500 colleges and universities in the country, fewer than 10 percent have endowments greater than $100M.

That means that graduates of some reasonably good private colleges - and, as we see from the Berkeley situation - some more than reasonably good state universities - who don't quite have the je n'est sais quoi to get into Harvard - may come out into the world with a boat load of debt. While the Harvardians, in addition to having that golden degree, that enviable network, and that marvelous certainty that no one they ever meet in their life is going to wonder why they went to college where they did, will not be looking at loan payments of $1,000 a month.

One thing, we're sure of,
The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.
In the meantime, in between time,
Ain't we got fun?

Fast forward, and where does this take us?

A lot of the lesser (lesser everything: lesser known, lesser quality, lesser endowment) colleges are gone, and the folks who used to go to such places now attend University of Phoenix online (where they'll miss out on at least 80% of what most people get out of an education, and have the college degree equivalent of a GED).

The competition will get fiercer and fiercer to get into Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, and becomes even nuttier than it is now. Pressure on the 3 year old not to grab his wee-wee during the pre-school interview, because if he doesn't get into the right pre-school, his chances in life are doomed. Pressure on the kid who wants to play clarinet in high school in Pittsburgh to move in with Grandpa in Montana and play the tuba, instead. Pressure to plagiarize so that you'll be seen as a novel-writing wunderkind. (Wait, these kinds of pressures already exist. Now it will just get worse.)

Hey, it's always been the case that if you want to be a Supreme Court Judge, you're better off with a degree from Harvard or Yale Law than you are from Buddy's Match Book Legal Academy. But if you wanted to have a nice little legal practice in your home town, Buddy's would do you just fine.

But where are we going to be if the only degrees worth having are free of cost, and you have to pay plenty for the ones that aren't worth a damn?


Will this be an unalloyed good?

The Times article contrasts the giving habits of a father-son duo who both went to Princeton undergrad. Pere donates to Princeton, fils donates to Virginia Tech, where he did his graduate work, figuring that Princeton already has $15.8B, which V-Tech has a wan $525M (which still puts in the upper echelon of endowments, by the way).

This little anecdote reminds me of a story my brother-in-law tells (and that always makes me laugh).

For years, he got an annual shake-down call from a fellow Harvard B School grad. For years, my brother-in-law - who is a very philanthropic and generous fellow, by the way - turned down the request, telling his friend that he would write a check if the friend could come up with just one less worthy cause than HBS. One year, the friend did the trick, naming Harvard Law School. My brother-in-law, a man of his word, wrote the check.


*This is a Harvard fight/marching song, which I only know because I've been to a few football games where their band plays this tune. A note on watching a football game at Harvard's decidedly old-fashioned Soldiers' Field: it's actually fun to see normal-sized student athletes play the game.

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