You Shouldn’t Donate A Single Dollar To Your Alma Mater
May 18, 2015

You Shouldn’t Donate A Single Dollar To Your Alma Mater

Filed under Rants and Raves

It’s that time of year again, when my poor little college comes begging for money, like a blind subway singer. I woke up to this desperate plea a few weeks ago:

 “Peter --- I wanted to reach out one last time regarding the March Challenge that ends at midnight tonight! We're only 183 gifts short of our goal of 2,500 to secure $150,000 for financial aid. Please make a gift and help keep the Middlebury experience possible for students of all backgrounds.“

Typically, I react to these e-mails with laughter --- boisterous, delirious, Oh-My-God-I-Can’t-Breathe laughter. You see, dear reader, I hated Middlebury. Asking me to give to Middlebury is like asking prison alumnus Andy Dufresne for a small donation to help make the Shawshank experience possible for more inmates. This is how I remember graduation night.

But I’m no longer amused by these fundraising e-mails. I’m enraged. And I want to transfer my rage to you, so that you may respond appropriately the next time alumni try to milk you for money.

I’m not here to rant about Middlebury, although I would love to, maybe some other time? My lack of appreciation for the Middlebury experience is purely incidental. I’m here to argue that if you attended any uber-exclusive and expensive private college or university, even if it was the most joyous and enlightening four years of your life, you should not offer any financial assistance to your beloved institution. It’s not just a waste of money --- I think it might be actively unethical.

Let’s start with the “complete waste of money” part, and allow me to use Middlebury here to represent all schools like it (feel free to substitute Middlebury for Harvard or Smith or wherever). Here’s a fun fact about my alma mater: it educates 2,400 undergraduates, at a cost of $57,000 a year per student. In other words, the $150,000 of financial aid that this fundraiser is trying to secure would allow like half of one poor person to attend Middlebury.

Wow, talk about a high-impact gift! Just as a frame of reference here, it costs about $3,000 to send someone in Sub Saharan Africa to school for a year. Somebody please convince me that it’s better to donate $150,000 to a tiny, elite liberal arts college in Vermont than to Camfed, an amazing nonprofit that champions young women’s education in the poorest parts of the world. 

Now I have mixed feelings about so-called “effective altruism” --- the idea that all donations should be evaluated on an “amount of good per dollar spent” basis. But come on, this is just fucking ridiculous.

And the comparison between Camfed and Middlebury is actually misleading, because it implies both are good causes, and one just happens to be better than the other. I don’t think giving to Middlebury is a good cause --- I think it’s a bad one.

Why? Well, what does Middlebury stand for? To my mind, it stands for the country club model of higher education. It selectively admits students who are already smart and charges an outrageous fee in exchange for access to its prestige (or, in this case, the illusion of prestige, since you’ve never even heard of Middlebury, but I digress).

In a world where student debt has surpassed one trillion dollars, where the cost of higher education has risen 1120% in the past 30 years, and where attending college is pretty much required to break into the middle class, how is it beneficial for society to support schools like Middlebury? Schools that intentionally try to admit as few students as possible and prize exclusivity above scalability or affordability?

Donating to Middlebury is not a legitimate way to address income inequality or improve access to quality higher education. That’s about as effective as buying lottery tickets for the homeless. So instead of trying to appeal to my conscience, why don’t these fundraisers come out and say what they’re really trying to appeal to: my shameless self-interest in bettering my children’s chances of being admitted to my alma mater.

How about a little “Peter --- please give us money to preserve your offspring’s social status and help ossify the ranks of the American aristocracy.” Ossify is such an underrated SAT word, the Midd Kids will eat it right up!

The Middlebury experience is not something we should strive to save. We should all be praying that the great eraser head of technology makes that experience obsolete, or supporting policies that strengthen our country’s public universities, like The City University of New York, which provides four years of college for less than half of one year of Middlebury.  

What I’m trying to say is: please take me off your God forsaken e-mail list. 

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