The urgent message hit my inbox yesterday. It was from Kim Benston, the president of my alma mater, Haverford College. He wants me to join him in lobbying Congress to block a tax on super-sized college and university endowments. His message was, in effect, “Rise up ye graduates of elite universities and defend the rich!”
George Will answered the call. In his regular Washington Post column, he penned a defense of one of the richest of the rich universities, Princeton. The fancy-pants university in New Jersey enjoys a monstrous endowment of more than $22 billion. But it is so noble and beneficent, Will tells us. Princeton provides scholarships to nearly one-fourth of its undergraduates who come from families that have difficulty paying its tuition, room, board, and fees, which exceed $60,000 per year.
That sounds generous, but it’s not. Do the math. A modest 5-percent return on $22 billion is $1.1 billion. Princeton has 5,000 undergraduates. That’s $220,000 for every undergraduate—every year. The amount given in scholarship aid is a piddling portion of Princeton’s endowment income. Assume that the quarter of Princeton students who get aid receive full scholarships (which they don’t, of course). That would cost the university around $75 million per year—less than 10 percent of its endowment income.
The math is similar at Haverford College and elsewhere. These institutions’ massive endowments are wonderful luxuries. The schools functioned without them for decades, even centuries. The vast sums have accumulated only in the last two or three generations. It’s part of the general pattern of income inequality that we’ve witnessed in recent decades. The top end of society does very well; the rest stagnate or fall behind. The fact that a select few very talented kids from middle-class families are invited into the charmed circle is irrelevant to the larger phenomenon.
The tax on super-sized endowments is a good idea, and the rate of taxation should be significantly higher than the modest one proposed in the current tax bill. Cultural power has become concentrated in a narrower and narrower class of people, and the institutions that serve (and perpetuate) them have become arrogant and detached. Yale University anguished over the name of Calhoun College. An enterprising student journalist traveled to Calhoun Community College in Decatur, Alabama. The students at that modest institution regarded Yale’s angst as a ridiculous luxury.
Not only have Princeton, Harvard, Yale, and other elite universities become decadent, they have failed in their self-appointed task. The leaders they proffer our society are increasingly incapable of leading. Our academic leaders oversee a campus culture often riven by conflict. These schools have become hotbeds for identity politics, and administrators kowtow to student extremists. Meanwhile, graduates too often condescend to ordinary citizens, thinking them ignorant bigots or “takers.”
Moreover, these super-rich schools are corrupt. I’ve been told by those who should know that it now takes a $25 million donation to Harvard to ensure admission for your children. I’ve written about the way in which elite schools use black students to establish the moral legitimacy of the ruling class. All of this is becoming transparent. As William Deresiewicz points out, far from an unwelcome plague, political correctness is cultivated at elite universities, because it so helpfully disguises their real function, which is to perpetuate our ruling class.
George Will thinks we are blessed to have places like Princeton, and Republicans who drafted the tax bill are ingrates. How can they fail to fall down and worship the great achievements of our super-rich universities?
Count me among the ingrates. I look at America in 2017 and see devastation. Anne Case and Angus Deaton have documented the death and suffering. This not happening in a society dominated by Evangelical pastors or Catholic bishops. The culture of our time is not overseen by old-fashioned Methodist matrons in the Midwest, nor do today’s opinion-leaders emerge from ag schools. Charles Blow is the only regular columnist for the New York Times under sixty years old who did not go to an elite university. For the last half-century, graduates from places like Princeton have been in charge. They are making a wreck of things—not for themselves, of course, but for the rest of society.
Over the same period of time, these institutions have become fully owned subsidiaries of the Democratic Party. This hyper-partisanship has contributed to the polarization of our politics. Instead of engaging the range of political and moral thinking that has shaped and continues to shape public life, our talented future leaders are fed a party line. Young people are not trained at these schools to be judicious, generous partisans in our political battles. The ideological homogeneity makes liberal students smug and insular—and conservative students radical and combative. There’s no denying a simple fact: Elite universities, subsidized by gigantic endowments, have failed as civic institutions.
American culture and politics will be healthier when George Will’s Princeton (and my own Haverford College) are less wealthy, less powerful, and less influential. We need a more varied and diverse cultural landscape, one in which the native talent of our country is not so relentlessly concentrated in just few super-rich schools and subjected to the same narrow educational experiences.
Taxes have consequences. Raise taxes on something, and you’ll get less of it. That’s exactly why the tax on super-sized university endowments is wise. We need less elite snobbery, condescension, and civic irresponsibility. Which means we need less elite education.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.