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A recent report on philanthropy acknowledges the power and limits of donations in funding higher education
In a report issued Monday on domestic donations given last year, The Chronicle of Philanthropy found that approximately half of the largest U.S. donations, and 19 of the 50 highest donors, went all in on higher education. It would appear without argument that this is worth celebrating. But, interrupting the toast here, such praise is not possible, at least not without complaint.
In God and Man at Yale, William F. Buckley, Jr. famously argued Yale alumni should more consciously exert their influence upon the academic policy of the school from which they graduated. The traditionalist aims of such control - what labeled Buckley and his book "conservative" - could obviously be criticized by those of a different mind.
But what is surprising about The Chronicle of Philanthropy results is that half of the top U.S. donors in higher education gave their sums to colleges they never attended. Shirking tradition, wherein alumni reinvest where they went, these donors presented a more promising means of funding higher education.
This is not to say that their philanthropic strategy is optimal. Donor choices are limited based on how familiar they are with universities, a familiarity grounded in experience, prestige or convention. Donations, moreover, often go to programs created at the whim of donors, who tend to be ignorant of what schools really need.
Providing philanthropists with a meritocratic means of allocating their funds is what is required in the wake of The Chronicle of Philanthropy report. Beyond the existing reputational rankings, institutions should provide potential donors with metrics related to student demographics, completion rates, affordability and success after graduation so that donors can support those school deemed most deserving based not on their history but their potential.
Whether private or otherwise, this type of donation process would be bureaucratic and political; but no more so than the type of alumni politics Buckley described at Yale. And, at the level of higher education, such funding would be on par with proposals in secondary education made by the last two presidents which incorporate a measure of libertarian competition even Buckley would appreciate.
With state funds waning, the amount and consequent influence of private donations to higher education has hit high tide. And since it is in education that the agenda of possibilities can be wiped clean of mandates dictated by fancy and nepotism, these wealthy donors giving back - or rather forward - to their non-alma mater colleges is a move to be applauded. But even if we cannot afford it, we can still have theoretical reservations made under the rest of our names about such philanthropy.