Like Christmas every day
May 21, 2019 1:54 PM   Subscribe

$40M 'pay it forward' idea is likely to trigger positive 'contagion effect,' researcher says. The exact amount to be covered for the 396 students is still being calculated, Morehouse College President David A. Thomas told CNN on Monday, but the figure will likely be in the tens of millions of dollars. Robert Frederick Smith (born December 1, 1962) is an African-American businessman, investor, and philanthropist. A former chemical engineer and investment banker, he is the founder, chairman, and CEO of private equity firm Vista Equity Partners. In 2018, Smith was ranked by Forbes as the 163rd richest person in America. Here's the best reaction to Robert F. Smith paying off the student debt at Morehouse.
posted by kneecapped (80 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
You know, congratulations to Mr. Smith for a) working hard & doing well in life and b) recognizing he didn’t do it alone and c) recognizing he has a responsibility to ensure others have the same opportunities that he was blessed with.

But ensuring opportunity for the next generation shouldn’t be optional or something left to the billionaire class as a philanthropic exercise.

Just pay your taxes.
posted by Big Al 8000 at 2:30 PM on May 21 [147 favorites]

Billionaire breaks ranks, saves fraction of education-seekers from lifetime of servitude.

It's a feel-good story, but it sure feels bad that it's even necessary. Kind of like those "kid sells Christmas gifts to help pay mother's hospital bills" situations.
posted by FakeFreyja at 2:35 PM on May 21 [71 favorites]

This is thankfully a case where I feel like Smith is making a huge gesture in part for HBCUs and largely because in personally forgiving these students' debts he gets the conversation to be about how much of a difference that makes. It shouldn't just be up to the whims of billionaire philanthropists, but hopefully thanks to this one it soon may not be. Hopefully.
posted by Navelgazer at 2:37 PM on May 21 [44 favorites]

Well, eat the rich but eat the Chobani yogurt guy and this dude last just isn't as catchy.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:42 PM on May 21 [29 favorites]

Definitely good on Smith, especially considering the extra burdens Morehouse graduates are likely to face, but society should not be at this point. As Stephen King said about philanthropy: Tax Me, for F@%&’s Sake!
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:44 PM on May 21 [18 favorites]

There's a lot to like about this. It may not be perfect, but it's pretty fantastic!
posted by asok at 2:50 PM on May 21 [4 favorites]

You get a car!
posted by pracowity at 3:06 PM on May 21 [2 favorites]

"Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary." -MLK Jr.
posted by thewumpusisdead at 3:09 PM on May 21 [104 favorites]

This is unquestionably a good thing. And Morehouse seems like a pretty great institution.

But, I do feel for all the students in the audience who turned down research opportunities because they had to work over the summer. And those who got Bs instead of As because they were trying to take more classes in order to graduate a year early for financial reasons. There's nothing bad about this. But, we can do better.
posted by eotvos at 3:23 PM on May 21 [18 favorites]

Stephen Colbert's reaction is pretty fun.
posted by Bee'sWing at 3:26 PM on May 21 [2 favorites]

Shame it's not a Co-Ed school...
posted by shnarg at 3:27 PM on May 21 [15 favorites]

Shame it's not a Co-Ed school...

posted by shoesietart at 3:39 PM on May 21

And then he closed by saying, "So class of 2019, may the sun always shine upon you, may the wind always be at your back, and may God always hold you ... in the cradle of her hands."
posted by vverse23 at 3:41 PM on May 21 [20 favorites]

I would have rather he put that money towards lobbying to fix the broken system. 396 students is a drop in the bucket. Relying on the philanthropy of billionaires isn't going to wipe out student debt for the rest of us.

In my case it's meant inability to own a home into my 40's in my home state, and the trickle-down of that will be that my kid will go to college on loans as well. I'd bet every penny I have now that the wealth gaps will only be wider by the time that happens. Would that I could.
posted by allkindsoftime at 3:47 PM on May 21 [8 favorites]

It’s amazing for these folks but’s hard not to think about how the largesse of billionaires isn’t justice. I was at an event recently that was sponsored by an organization funded by the granddaughter of a billionaire (and possibly a billionaire herself). A $20M piece of real estate and an entire infrastructure available to people with a certain condition, all of it necessary, but also only available bc this woman happened to have this condition.

I’m glad they’re occasionally helping people, but this isn’t right.
posted by schadenfrau at 3:49 PM on May 21 [10 favorites]

I would have rather he put that money towards lobbying to fix the broken system.
He can do both.
I agree with everyone here, free education should be a human right, and I think there are tons of evidence showing a society with free education is a richer society.
But when I saw this, I realized that if you live in a society that is broken, and specifically broken for your own people, maybe you will prefer giving to the people you want to give to, rather than have your tax money going towards wars, border walls, prisons, fundamentalist judges and so on.
My Jewish grandfather (in Europe) felt like that, and I never got it before this story. I pay my taxes proudly, but I also trust that the money goes broadly where I want it to go.
posted by mumimor at 4:03 PM on May 21 [17 favorites]

I've been seeing how Smith has also been an outspoken proponent of the carried interest loophole, saving $18b/year for his industry & workplace. Not that all of that directly flows to him, of course, but lobbying to keep something open which could pay for this largesse 450-fold, yearly makes this look like a great way to buy goodwill at a discount.
posted by CrystalDave at 4:03 PM on May 21 [42 favorites]

yeah like as a society in general we should move away from "the lord gives his serfs great presents on the occasion of his eldest daughter's wedding" and similar

it's great though and i am happy for the beneficiaries; i just wish that category encompassed everyone with student debt.
posted by poffin boffin at 4:08 PM on May 21 [25 favorites]

Shame it's not a Co-Ed school...

I think single-sex institutions are valuable but yes, I wish there were efforts aimed at reducing women's student loan burdens here too.

According to a report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), women hold nearly two-thirds of the outstanding student debt in the United States — almost $929 billion as of early-2019. Female graduates owe, on average, about $22,000 in student debt compared to $18,880 owed by men.

So they graduate with approximately 17% more college debt ... into a workforce that pays women a starting salary that is, on average, 18% less than the starting salary paid to men. That wage gap only widens over the years.

As a result, men pay off a greater percentage of their loans more quickly than women do.

So while it's great that this graduating class of men gets to launch into the working world without the constraints of student loans -- and it is, don't get me wrong -- it also reminds some of us that there are a lot of factors stacked against women building assets from college on.
posted by sobell at 4:16 PM on May 21 [30 favorites]

I was under the impression that Monday's blue, Tuesday's gray and Wednesday too, so I'm very happy to see Robert Smith starting the week off with such a lovely gesture.
posted by w0mbat at 4:19 PM on May 21 [21 favorites]

there's an interesting area of public policy/social science research about whether narrowly tailored social welfare (i.e., that only helps a small group in need) increases resentment among their peers, and if so, whether that suggests social welfare programs should be as broad as possible (like SS), even if it makes them less generous and more likely to help people who dont need it as much.

i dont know the answer. but moves like this (the most extreme form of narrow aid, to just the people who happened to be in that one class) can definitely serve as a case study. how do the other classes in the college feel about it? how about other students of HBCU's? other colleges generally? other young people of color who arent in school? and finally, other people of all groups? it would be an interesting thing to poll.
posted by wibari at 4:21 PM on May 21 [3 favorites]

He not only eliminated their student debt, but he challenged his peers to eliminate all future student debt in this community, and ya'll are like "not good enough."

This was inspiring. This is huge. This can be a part of the political conversation, that not only ads fuel to the fire that Warren is stoking with eliminating student debt, but also has a very concrete effect on generations. You can't look at every problem and say "if it's not structurally solved then I'm not interested" without sounding like a complete ass.
posted by weed donkey at 4:22 PM on May 21 [50 favorites]

Just for context, the amount of money he pledged is less than 1% of his wealth. He could afford to eliminate the debts of all Morehouse students for 100 years and still be a fabulously wealthy person.

He made his money in the private equity and hedge fund business that enjoys the "carried interest" loophole that taxes folks like him at a lower rate than a restaurant waiter. That's how you get to be a billionaire.
posted by JackFlash at 4:30 PM on May 21 [31 favorites]

Omg. People are seriously critiqueing him for benefitting from tax loopholes? Woulda do that if he were white? Agree with weed donkey. This is a great gesture.
posted by jj's.mama at 4:34 PM on May 21 [3 favorites]

Yes, fix the system. But let's also celebrate generosity. He encourages alumni and others to pay it forward. He talks about the community giving back. It's inspiring for once. Did y'all not read the Atlantic article about how the war on drugs effectively shut black men out of college?
posted by jj's.mama at 4:37 PM on May 21 [7 favorites]

Woulda do that if he were white?

I can't speak for anyone else here, but yeah absolutely. MeFi generally not real pro-tax-loophole, regardless of the skin color of those who abuse the loophole.
posted by axiom at 4:41 PM on May 21 [48 favorites]

Woulda do that if he were white?

The other billionaire I mentioned (and who had already had me thinking about this before I saw this news) is white, so...yes.

For the most part when I hear about billionaires and their philanthropy it’s not so personally directed, and it’s not in the US. Both of those things really bring the discrepancy home, for me. Like I don’t know how else you’d try to tackle global warming or malaria, but like...a billionaire suddenly paying off a bunch of American medical debt because his kid got sick or whatever would give me the same feeling.

It helps a few hundred people, including the billionaire. But it’s the fact that billionaires exist that’s the problem. No one’s going to refuse their help; no one should. But I’m kind of tired of pretending like they’re a good thing, or even that their existence as billionaires isn’t actively harmful, even when they do things that help me personally, like the aforementioned billionaire heiress has.
posted by schadenfrau at 4:56 PM on May 21 [18 favorites]

(Damnit, I'm about to say something inflammatory on the internets.)

Would it be great if he also worked to fix the system/do more/lobby/give more? Yes, that would also be great.

But let me give the flipped version of jj's.mama's comment : Should a black man not take absolutely every loophole and advantage that routinely benefits non-POC???
posted by BlueBlueElectricBlue at 4:57 PM on May 21 [10 favorites]

Let's celebrate. He is the richest black man in America who no one has heard about until now. His parents were Phds and educators. He was an infant when his mother carried him to see MLK Jr's I have a dream speech. He was only in highschool when he applied for an internship that he was denied because he wasn't in college. He persisted in calling them every Monday until he got the internship.
posted by jj's.mama at 5:03 PM on May 21 [15 favorites]

Rich people are hardly the problem. Let's refocus on the real darn issues.
posted by jj's.mama at 5:04 PM on May 21 [1 favorite]

And as this post originally says, we're celebrating Christmas here. Don't be a grinch.
posted by jj's.mama at 5:05 PM on May 21 [3 favorites]

Given this gift vs. his net worth as a relative-fraction; vs. the median US household's net worth ($97,300, which definitely has issues broken down by demographic, but let's go with it under the idea that white households should be expected to do proportionally more), this'd be equivalent to said median household giving away... $884, once.

I don't know about you, but my net worth isn't up that far and I still give away quite a bit more each year. Hell, I've donated more specifically to HBCUs proportionally than he has. And I neither take advantage of tax loopholes nor advocate to keep/strengthen them.
posted by CrystalDave at 5:17 PM on May 21 [11 favorites]

Agreed, he's the richest black man in America, he's got a hell of a life story, he just did a giant selfless thing that also happens to be very politically important... this is NOT the right person to be yelling about right now.

It's not a good look. The next few Metafilter posts are about Stephen Wolfram and Niki Lauder, both extremely rich white men who don't seem to have Robert Smith's generosity... let's check to see if those posts are filled with people complaining about tax dodging
posted by weed donkey at 5:17 PM on May 21 [13 favorites]

that we live in a country that produces people as fabulously wealthy as this guy alongside people who can’t afford insulin is a very real issue
posted by Gymnopedist at 5:17 PM on May 21 [11 favorites]

Wait. One of the main reasons this is such a big event is that otherwise student debt is a crippling weight that people carry for the rest of their lives and we live in a society with stunning wealth inequality, and you don’t think people get to have complicated reactions to that because the guy doing the jubilee is black?

That student debt is crushing is true. That wealth inequality is an obscenity is true. That Smith has just helped an entire class of black men is true. That this action highlights inequality and inequity is also true. All of these things are true at once. That is complicated. People are allowed to have complicated reactions to complicated situations. You can be happy for these students and sad about the state of the world and outraged at the current system, including the ways this illustrates it, all at the same time.
posted by schadenfrau at 5:26 PM on May 21 [38 favorites]

[Folks, this does not need to be an "either this is entirely good or this is entirely bad, pick a side and fight" sort of deal. Let's try and back away from either take on that and maybe start from a point of acknowledging both that people might have genuinely good reason to be happy that someone did something good for some young people in a historically meaningful context and that systemic wealth disparity is a problem with the world, without staking the two concepts against each other for the sake of having yet another argument. Y'all can talk about both aspects in turn instead.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 5:35 PM on May 21 [20 favorites]

Rich people are hardly the problem.

People this rich shouldn’t exist.

I’ll come out stronger than most of the naysayers in this thread: there is nothing whatsoever to celebrate about this. The whole thing is evidence of a total failure of human society to approach equitably distributing resources. Cheering this on is akin to applauding the lottery as an amazing poverty amelioration program.
posted by scantee at 5:37 PM on May 21 [36 favorites]

Shame it's not a Co-Ed school...

Robert Smith is a black man supporting other black men. He could have helped lots of other people in lots of other ways but this is the thing he chose to do. He is also a black billionaire who still gets pulled over for driving while black.

As a black woman, I support his efforts. The economic deck is stacked against black men, even well-educated ones. Smith's gesture is not the answer to the student loan crisis but it will certainly help this group of students.

The inheritance of black poverty: It’s all about the men: Black men born to low-income parents are much more likely to end up with a low individual income than black women, white women, and—especially—white men.

It is now quite clear that improving economic mobility in the U.S. will be virtually impossible without a dramatic alteration in the trajectories of black children, and black boys in particular.
posted by shoesietart at 5:42 PM on May 21 [53 favorites]

I have a friend who's a professor at Morehouse. He pointed out the this is an amazing gesture and also means that each young man carried an average of $100,000 of student loan debt. Things need to change!
posted by ChuraChura at 5:56 PM on May 21 [18 favorites]

From a system-wide perspective, I honestly don't care that Robert F. Smith personally took advantage of carried interest, but his standing as a billionaire makes it pretty likely that his advocacy for that loophole has had an active effect on wealth inequality in this country. I remain extremely happy that this year's Morehouse graduates will have their debt paid off, but it seems likely that Smith has and will continue to be an actively malignant actor with regards to the state of poverty in America, and I think it's harmful to the cause of eliminating poverty in the US to ignore that in the face of this one philanthropic gesture.
posted by invitapriore at 6:25 PM on May 21 [18 favorites]

I work at a .edu, and when my team discussed it today, one thought was for the students who worked their asses off to graduate debt-free or, worse, had to drop out because of money: if the cash was pledged up front, how many more students might have graduated? This way it's like....survivorship bias, I guess.

Still, good on this guy for reaching back down the ladder a few rungs instead of pulling that ladder up behind him.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:07 PM on May 21 [14 favorites]

this'd be equivalent to said median household giving away...

...a single penny they found on the sidewalk. If you have $4.4 billion, then $40 million is a negligible part of your wealth, because you can give it away and still have $4.36 billion, which means that you still have $4.4 billion after rounding it off. It’s not proportional. It can never be proportional. It will take all five of his kids their entire lifetimes to piss away enough of that money for maybe one of their kids to go broke after an entire lifetime of doing dick-all.
posted by Etrigan at 7:33 PM on May 21 [25 favorites]

Hell, I've donated more specifically to HBCUs proportionally than he has.

Is there any reason to believe that this has been his only donation to a HBCU? Or are you saying you've donated more than him proportionally in a single instance?
posted by I paid money to offer this... insight? at 7:34 PM on May 21 [3 favorites]

I worked off the numbers available, so the latter. (If he's got a history of giving millions/billions more, then it's easy enough to recalculate)

That said, Etrigan also has a solid point. Proportionality has its limits. But even under proportionality, it's a fraction of a fraction.
posted by CrystalDave at 7:40 PM on May 21 [3 favorites]

there is nothing whatsoever to celebrate about this

Good thing you pointed that out, I nearly thought we had broken our 12-year streak of pure bleakness:

posted by Freelance Demiurge at 7:51 PM on May 21 [2 favorites]

Hats of to this guy for doing the right thing when the system is broken and for calling on others to step up. Except in the ability to give more, his donation is no different from any I make to charity, philosophically.

I believe firmly in the Mary Wollstencraft quote " it is justice, not charity, that is wanting in the world" -- hell i drink my coffee from a mug that says this-- but I still give to the food bank and poverty relief efforts even though i think they are band aids. And then i vote and march and put forward policy proposals in my area of work and etc etc etc. Whatever I can. But I donate because poor people shouldn't have to suffer while the broader community gets our act together.

There are now hundreds of educated young men from Moorhouse class of 2019 who will be bound to do right by others, and be a little more able to do and give more now they have no debt. let's see what they do with their opportunity.
posted by chapps at 8:28 PM on May 21 [15 favorites]

Cheering this on is akin to applauding the lottery as an amazing poverty amelioration program.

Screaming at the entire world to stop seems like it would be exhausting.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 8:42 PM on May 21 [4 favorites]

My employer - an Ed Tech company - is one of Vista's portfolio companies.

I have very, very complicated feelings about this situation. I don't believe billionaires should exist. It is galling that they do, particularly when you don't even have to go far to find homeless people in need of so much.

However, I'm not willing to spit fire at a man who just made some people's lives infinitely less difficult. I'm also not going to spit fire at a man who insists that the companies he invests in treat their talent like Actual People. (My job is hard, but my mental health has never been better!) Surely, this doesn't have to be all or nothing?
posted by MissySedai at 10:02 PM on May 21 [15 favorites]

Give this man a shamrock.
posted by clavdivs at 10:26 PM on May 21

I feel like people may not have listened to his speech and are perhaps missing some of the point he was trying to make. It seemed pretty clear to me that he doesn't intend for this to be a one-off; it's meant as a challenge, presumably to other alumni who have done well financially, to ensure succeeding classes also graduate debt-free. Which, if you're doing it in advance and not as a surprise, seems like it leads to some sort of tuition-free system. That could be a pretty big deal for a lot of students, since it also implies truly need-blind admissions (unlike most "need blind" admissions where it's still there, lurking but hidden, without a need to pay tuition there really is no reason to discriminate in favor of students who can pay). Particularly in the context of an HBC.

I'm not convinced the money would have been better spent on lobbying. Even a guy of his means isn't going to be able to outspend the student-loan industry. Whatever he spends on lobbyists, they're going to match. On highly contested issues, it's basically zero-sum trench warfare where the only winners are the lobbyists themselves.

What he did makes a huge and lasting difference to the lives of 300+ students, any of whom might go on to have different life trajectories as a result. He's making a very visible challenge to Morehouse's other alumni, the school itself, and to other philanthropists. And he's furthering the national conversation, drawing attention to the crippling effect of student debt on graduates, during what could be a formative moment in the upcoming Presidential race (if any of the would-be candidates are smart enough to seize on it). I don't see any amount of morally compromised PAC donations doing that.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:49 PM on May 21 [22 favorites]

Why is tuition so high? Must be because of a scarcity of slots or jobs down the pipeline, right? Without addressing those issues, this gesture falls in the “feel good” category for me.

If we’re serious about removing wealth inequality, we need to figure out how to have a society in which everyone can be educated and working skilled jobs. Keeping in mind that book-learning is not for everyone, and not the only way to acquire skills.

Which I think is made more possible by tech than by dinosaur industries like legal and Wall Street. Say what you want about tech, but the amount of information/training and resources available online, for free right now is unprecedented. There’s nothing holding people back from gaining employable skills except time and access to the basics (personal computer and internet). Now, if we could just figure out a way to prevent people from becoming accidental parents at young ages, so that they have that available time, we might have a way forward on our hands...
posted by mantecol at 11:22 PM on May 21 [3 favorites]

MetaFilter: It may not be perfect, but it's pretty fantastic!
posted by chavenet at 1:55 AM on May 22 [3 favorites]

I appreciated AOC's take: "This could be the start of what’s known in Econ as a ‘natural experiment.’ Follow these students & compare their life choices w their peers over the next 10-15 years." [link] This is a great gift to social science too.
posted by Kilter at 4:41 AM on May 22 [8 favorites]

I'm with ChuraChura on this one. If your graduating class is 400 people, and their collective student loan debt (just from an undergraduate degree!) is $40 million, that means you expect the average 22-year-old graduate to walk out of your institution with $100,000 in student loan debt. With interest rates where they are today, that means a ~$1200/month payment for ten years. Or $700/month for 30 years. It's a mortgage, except it doesn't buy a place to live, and it's undischargable in bankruptcy. That is an utterly insane amount of debt to saddle students with. Many or most of them will never get out from under that debt, barring the intervention of the odd billionaire.
posted by Mayor West at 4:42 AM on May 22 [20 favorites]

This is just one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen... I got no analysis, just so moved by the beauty.
posted by seacats at 5:19 AM on May 22

A tomahawk cruise missile costs about $1.5 million. Over 50 were used by the USA in Syria.

My point? Paying college bills is a drop in the bucket compared to the US military budget. It isn't that we **CAN'T** do this, it's that we as a nation choose not to. College doesn't need to be a lifetime financial burden, collectively we have decided that it should be.
posted by sotonohito at 5:49 AM on May 22 [6 favorites]

I'm with ChuraChura on this one. If your graduating class is 400 people, and their collective student loan debt (just from an undergraduate degree!) is $40 million, that means you expect the average 22-year-old graduate to walk out of your institution with $100,000 in student loan debt

At the risk of stating the obvious: the students have higher debt on average because Morehouse is an HBCU.

If you're serving predominately black students, they're going to be coming from, overall, families that are less wealthy, and will need to take on more loans. And, once they graduate, even if, say, they don't have as many loans, they're making less money, and are in less of a position to give donations to the school, so you're generally working with much smaller endowments, etc., and are less able to give financial aid.

HBCUs suffer from the same issue of a lack of generational wealth as black people in the US more generally. Bennett College's future, for example, was/is in doubt because of a short fall of $5 million dollars. My alma mater raised more than that in one day last month.

This is all coming from structural problems with how we fund undergraduate education in the US, but Morehouse and other HBCUs look particularly bad due to systematic racism, rather than any particular mismanagement by the college. Please, correct me if I'm wrong about Morehouse specifically, and they have done something really bad with their finances, but, AFAIK, this a general issue for HBCUs. And this is why this gift will have a bigger multiplier effect--all these graduates will not only be helping out, say, their kids, but they will also be in a position to put Morehouse on better financial footing, which could help lower student debt in the future.
posted by damayanti at 5:52 AM on May 22 [12 favorites]


We pay a lot more upper level administrators a lot more than we used to. The number of back end management level administration staff at colleges has exploded, their salaries are sky high, and that's where a lot of the money is going. We're running college like a business and that means loading up with a lot of worthless managerial types who leech all the money they can.

Pay for teachers at colleges and universities is down significantly as they've moved from mostly having full time professors to abusing grad students and adjunct faculty.

Pay for actually necessary administrative staff is down as they've pared them to the absolute minimum and the teaching staff is doing significantly more of their own administrative work.

I'd like to blame it on coaches because I loathe college sports, but while they do take more money than the real teaching staff they're just a drop in the bucket.

TL;DR: colleges have added a thick layer of worthless managers who are taking all the money.
posted by sotonohito at 5:54 AM on May 22 [5 favorites]

TL;DR: colleges have added a thick layer of worthless managers who are taking all the money.

A much larger layer of "all the money" used to come from public funding, between direct subsidies to public university systems and indirect funding of research and financial aid. Unsurprisingly, it is largely Reagan's fault:
1966: Ronald Reagan assumed office of Governor of California and changed the course of the state’s higher education system. In his eight years, he cut state funding for college and universities and laid the foundation for a tuition-based system.
The "thick layer of worthless managers" is 1% of the problem.
posted by Etrigan at 6:16 AM on May 22 [12 favorites]

sotonohito: TL;DR: colleges have added a thick layer of worthless managers who are taking all the money.

*waves* Hi, sotonohito!

"Worthless middle manager" from a .edu here. I would be happy to talk about some of the things actually driving the increases in tuition if you want -- and goodness knows there are a lot of factors all piling up at once -- if you're interested in exploring them, and puzzling out which are voluntary and which are external. Indeed, I work in IT, and we are often pointed to as a significant cost center -- but there's been genuine changes to the way universities work in the past quarter-century, and changes in America's economy, that have more to do with rising tuition than people like me free-loading on the backs of deserving young people.
  • State & federal contributions to financial aid are down, and some of the costs that used to be paid that way are now being paid with tuition .
  • User expectations of administrative functions (e.g., bill payment, class registration, transcripts, online applications, central printing....) are much higher, and many require big capital investments in computers and expenses investments in staff.
  • There are fewer students of college age.
  • Cost of living adjustments tend to go up over time, but simply kicking out older (more expensive) workers for younger ones (always cheaper) destroys the institutional memory that keeps a university working, and also is probably a violation of employment law.
  • Health care costs are much higher.
  • The Common Appolication means that it's easy to apply to a bunch more schools, all of whom have to consider our applciation seriously (even if you only did it to get your parents off your back), which requires extra staff.
  • Real estate costs more.
  • Accreditation bodies now require that curricula be overhauled to include documentation showing how everything relates, from the university's mission through its organizations (college, schools, departments), through degree programs, through course descriptions, to assignments, to test questions, and to scoring rubrics. This is a major, multi-year effort involving staff and a dedicated office and every professor , and there's software to track it that costs in six figures (and doesn't do much else, for all that expense). That's just so we can keep offering degrees.
  • Lights, heat, and power all cost more.
  • The amount of Internet bandwidth consumed by Netflix would make you shake your head in disbelief, and it has to be available in every corner of campus at high speed, for free, and at high availability.
  • Students expect to use their own computer or phone or tablet -- or someone else's -- to register for classes, submit homework, contact their professor, pay bills, or find out where the (free) shuttle bus is, but don't want to be bothered with passwords or buy (or install) any software, and with help available 24/7 that can fix any combination of software & hardware immediately without opening a damn help desk ticket.
Or was that just a casual drive-by shit-flinging? *nods* I do that, too, sometimes: it can feel good.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:18 AM on May 22 [32 favorites]

A tomahawk cruise missile costs about $1.5 million. Over 50 were used by the USA in Syria.

Is this just a measuring-stick thing, like measuring stuff in "football fields" or "blue whales" or whatever? Because if not... here's a thought: you will do better advocating for whatever program you favor if you don't try to make it a zero-sum game at the expense of some other program, which you may not particularly like, but a whole mess of other people are going to absolutely go knives-out over. And the way defense programs are structured, typically across lots of Congressional districts and often in regions where other jobs are scarce, you are asking for the mother of all to-the-death political battles. (The Tomahawk program in particular has its manufacturing—and associated mostly upper-middle-class jobs—split across Virginia, Maryland, California, and Arizona; the prime contractor is based in Massachusetts; maintenance facilities are located in Michigan and Florida; I think the warhead comes from Utah; so yeah... good luck going after that. You'll have half a dozen senators and who knows how many representatives lining up to kneecap you.)

It is a common dirtbag conservative technique to pit social programs as intrinsically opposed to military spending, because between the two it is generally (within my lifetime: universally, hilariously, ridiculously) easier to get public support for the military. This technique has, over time, been extremely successful at gutting social programs while at the same time increasing military spending. So I'd be real cautious setting up a dichotomy between the two. It plays right into this strategy.

Hell, if I was looking to backdoor an increase to higher-education funding, the way I'd do it is by expanding the GI Bill (well, not before taking for-profits out back behind the Dept of Education's woodshed and finishing what the Obama administration started); I suspect in dollar terms it's probably one of the biggest Federal transfers to higher education in the 20th century.

You're not going to suddenly make the US population decide that militarism is a bad idea, at least on a less-than-generational timescale. And even over multiple generations: if Korea didn't do it, and Vietnam didn't do it, and 18+ years of GWOT didn't do it, I'd suggest that the country is pretty firmly and inter-generationally committed to the whole idea. If the public was half as committed to public education, we'd never be having this conversation in the first place.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:12 AM on May 22 [3 favorites]

wenestvedt I'm clearly not talking about people like you who actually get shit done. I work IT myself, I know the attitude that IT is a cost center very well.

But do we really need all the assistant deans and assistant vice chancellors and so on? And, for that matter do we need a President, a CEO, **AND** a chancellor? All at salaries measured in millions?
posted by sotonohito at 7:16 AM on May 22 [4 favorites]

I also don't buy the "public funding has gone down, that's why you're in debt to your eyeballs" argument because private universities like Harvard used to charge vastly lower tuition and they never got a time in pubic funding.

Rule 1: if the money is vanishing and you don't see any of it being spent on goods or services it's being absorbed by some rich fucker.

Schools pay less to teachers today, buildings aren't being built every day, so clearly it's not going to goods and services. QED.
posted by sotonohito at 7:22 AM on May 22

But do we really need all the assistant deans and assistant vice chancellors and so on?

In many cases, yes, there are regulations requiring that someone do that job at that level. Title IX compliance, non-discrimination compliance (we're all mandatory reporters while at work, you know), legal stuff (SOX, FERPA, HIPAA, GLB, GDRP, PCI, federal/state information security regimes, etc., etc.), as well as folks ensuring that curriculum matches federal requirements or "student success" people who watch whether students look like they're falling off the rails, or financial aid people... Yeah, a lot of those people really are required.

All at salaries measured in millions?

"All"? Paid in "millions"? Really?

Schools pay less to teachers today, buildings aren't being built every day, so clearly it's not going to goods and services. QED.

if you think that health insurance, retirement benefits, building maintenance, IT subscriptions, and professional development aren't "goods and services" then I don't think you're really discussing this in good faith. Yes, it's frustrating that costs have risen so quickly, but if you ask people working in .edu, their benefits and perks have all been sharply reduced or eliminated (and in many cases, their entire job). I could give you tons of firsthand examples that wouldn't budge your opinion, so I will offer only this: our office doesn't provide us coffee or even water anymore.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:36 AM on May 22 [9 favorites]

Thank God the adults have logged on to defend the honor of squint ... billionaires, university bureaucracy and cruise missiles?
posted by Reyturner at 7:54 AM on May 22 [11 favorites]

Its weird how I keep pointing to upper management taking all the money and you keep saying "I don't even have a coffee machine!"

Dude, I'm not talking about you except in the sense that you've had your salary and benefits cut for the benefit of the suits. Are you a C level employee? No? Then you're not the problem and I'm not saying you are.

And yes, there's a few extra expenses these days (internet for example). But no possible way does that actually account for the insane leap in college tuition.

A semester at Harvard, not one single penny of public funding, cost around $11,000 in inflation adjusted dollars in 1960 [1]. Today one semester at Harvard costs roughly $50,000. Again, not one single penny in public funding, so the decline in public funding has nothing to do with the cost increase.

An internet connection and IT staff don't explain an increase of 4.5x.

The money is going somewhere. It's not going to you. It's not going to the teachers. It's not going to labs or buildings. The only place left is the pockets of parasites in suits at the C level. Again, NOT YOU. NOT YOUR STAFF. NOT THE WORKERS. The people at the top.

There's literally nowhere else for that money to be. We're paying more than ever before, and the teaching staff isn't getting that money, the support staff isn't getting that money, the physical plant isn't getting that money. So where, other than the fat bank accounts of the executives, has the money gone?

[1] Around $2,000 in 1960 dollars.
posted by sotonohito at 8:04 AM on May 22 [5 favorites]

TL;DR: colleges have added a thick layer of worthless managers who are taking all the money.

Hey, someone is describing my department at a .edu. I am professional staff, so I perform a very specific skilled administrative job.

My whole department is all of 26 people large. 14 are managers. I have four bosses in my college, and eight institution-wide. Four of them have no professional purpose other than supervising. My boss' boss has no job other than supervising my boss - a single person.

And last year was the first time in a while we could "afford" to give COL raises.

Yes, admin bloat is a significant part of why these students were in such ridiculous debt to begin with.
posted by FakeFreyja at 8:08 AM on May 22 [20 favorites]

Hats of to this guy for doing the right thing when the system is broken and for calling on others to step up. Except in the ability to give more, his donation is no different from any I make to charity, philosophically.

Unless you are also actively working to perpetuate the wealth gap, like Smith is, then I'm afraid it is different.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:39 AM on May 22 [7 favorites]

The effects of state disinvestment on higher education costs is not just "an argument" people are spitballing around.
posted by praemunire at 8:55 AM on May 22 [5 favorites]

Etrigan: "The "thick layer of worthless managers" is 1% of the problem."

I doubt that just 1% of the overall UC budget is going to senior management salaries. UCOP alone (central UC headquarters in Oakland) has a budget of ~$900 million, about 2.5% of the total UC system. And that percentage doesn't include senior management at each UC campus, i.e. chancellors, provosts, etc., let alone the endless vice provosts of global affairs.
posted by crazy with stars at 10:00 AM on May 22

I doubt that just 1% of the overall UC budget is going to senior management salaries

Per page 18 of this 204-page PDF (Display II-2), it's actually 0.4%, but believe what you will.
posted by Etrigan at 10:06 AM on May 22 [4 favorites]

The financial situation at major private universities is different than public Universities. Places like the UC system have not actually increased the amount they spend per student and in many cases are spending less (the graph on page 4 is striking.) The tuition increases are almost entirely attributable to decreased funding form other areas. The armies of administrators are there to deal with ever increasing armies of students as the universities have grown.

Now the interesting thing is why places with huge endowments like Harvard who rely less on public funding have also raised their tuition. My guess is that it is partly supply and demand - they can get away with charging more, and partly needing to be have their diploma seen as a prestige, luxury good. So they charge what they can and then turn around and spend that money on amenities for students to compete for prestige. Or perhaps it is getting siphoned off somewhere as sotonohito suspects, but it is a far different situation than the one public universities face. Harvard spends many times what public universities spend per student and with its endowment actually funds a smaller portion of that with tuition than public universities do.

Either way, the massive tuition increases at the public universities are because states are spending less on education even as a college diploma becomes necessary for many jobs, making demand higher. And that's the important part for why a decent education is increasingly out of reach.
posted by Zalzidrax at 11:11 AM on May 22 [3 favorites]

[One deleted. sotonohito, you've made your point several times; at this point please take a step back and let the thread breathe. If you need an answer, you can also go to AskMe.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 11:14 AM on May 22 [2 favorites]

Okay, so I don't have numbers on any of this, but in terms of "Where is the 4.5x more money going today that it didn't go to in the 1960's" ...

I could guess a few changes since then : As noted earlier - anything related to computing costs borne by the university. That's a whole new level of services and employment costs. Then I'm guessing at least some of the following count - environmental certifications, more expensive building materials, ADA compliance, general regulatory compliance, licenses (software licenses, publishing costs, journal subscriptions, etc.), legal support (including IP and campus safety), parking and transportation, compliance with food regulations and expanded dining options to support a wider range of diets, maintaining men and women's bathrooms in locations that used to be all-male (and now updating these to gender-neutral), expanding base costs and hiring packages in the engineering and biological sciences to cover the costs of new materials, technologies and machines, maintaining a growing load of data and resources from physical and digital sources that is ever-expanding over time, Title IX compliance, resources for a broader swath of faiths, adding psychological and sexual health services to campus health facilities, better infrastructure and support for international students including visa help... and yes, there's more.

Look, I hate bloat too and the acceleration of tuition is nothing short of shocking, but please be aware that running a facility that appropriately and inclusively supports and shelters teenagers from all over the world in compliance with constantly updating norms and legal standards is not a cheap thing.
posted by BlueBlueElectricBlue at 11:16 AM on May 22 [5 favorites]

I doubt that just 1% of the overall UC budget is going to senior management salaries

Per page 18 of this 204-page PDF (Display II-2), it's actually 0.4%, but believe what you will.

.4% of core funds. Core funds are 1/4 of total funding. I would bet they allocate portions of these salaries away from the "core fund" to be able to represent stats like the one you pulled, which tell nothing.

They also can discretionarily contribute to senior management's retirement plans, which would also not necessarily need to be included in salaries for the referenced exhibit, even from the core funds.
posted by avalonian at 11:37 AM on May 22 [1 favorite]

Core funds are 1/4 of total funding. I would bet they allocate portions of these salaries away from the "core fund" to be able to represent stats like the one you pulled, which tell nothing.

If they do that, then they aren't paying that "thick layer of worthless managers" with tuition money, which all goes into core funds.
posted by Etrigan at 11:55 AM on May 22

Right... They do something like fund portions of food or housing expenses with tuition then use margins from those areas to fund cost centers they don't want to appear coming from tuition (e.g. upper level compensation). Or at least that's how I would do it.
posted by avalonian at 12:50 PM on May 22

> private universities like Harvard used to charge vastly lower tuition and they never got a time in pubic funding

Harvard gets plenty of public funding, including that they don't pay property taxes (or pay just a little).
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:02 PM on May 22 [4 favorites]

If you are inclined to complain that rich people don't give enough money away, then you would be better served complaining about anyone else rather than the one who is in the headlines for giving some of his money away.

There are lots of rich people who didn't give any money away this week! Complain about them! Or, wait a year, and then complain about this guy if he doesn't give more of his money away! But you definitely shouldn't wait until someone starts doing the thing you like and then, at that precise moment, complain that they aren't doing it enough.
posted by value of information at 4:00 PM on May 22 [2 favorites]

I'll complain about the billionaires until they're not billionaires, thanks.

If you're a billionaire you are, by definition, not doing enough.
posted by Reyturner at 4:07 PM on May 22 [12 favorites]

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