Snarky Behavior

Morningside Post Article: Donor Disparity

October 10, 2007 · 1 Comment

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Reader’s Note:  This article originally appeared in the Morningside Post.

Jonathan Host, MIA 2009

In a comparison of the Woodrow Wilson School of International and Public Affairs at Princeton, and SIPA, the Columbia Spectator reports:

While SIPA has a $30 million endowment to support about 1200 students, the Woodrow Wilson School boasts a $558 million (endowment) for 200 students. This not only allows Princeton to be more flexible and swift in making changes, but makes opportunities possible that Columbia cannot offer its students.

This disparity is made even more explicit when visiting Columbia’s fund-raising campaign website. The endowment per student figures (included at the beginning of this post, as reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education for all degree granting programs, including the International Schools),is nearly four times greater at Princeton than it is at Columbia.

How does Columbia in general, and SIPA specifically, remain competitive?

Quite simply, it’s a matter of more students paying higher tuitions. Columbia’s revenue share from tuition is significantly higher than that of Harvard, Yale, Stanford or Princeton.

The substantial burden of financing an education intended to lead to a career in policy or public service is very distressing. At this year’s orientation session on Financial Aid, when Assistant Director of Financial Aid Claudio Vargas was asked the typical length of time expected to fully pay off student loans after SIPA, he responded: “For some people it’s six months… for others, 60 years.” (I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not, but either way, I assure you… I did not laugh).

Princeton too, despite its impressive endowment, is not without its fair share of financial problems. Last month the Washington Post ran a front page article entitled “Exacting Donors Reshape College Giving.” The article detailed the ongoing lawsuit of Robertson v. Princeton, a case with enormous implications on the interpretation of the flexible use of “restricted” and “unrestricted” donations to educational institutions.

The Robertson endowment– originally a $35 million stock donation underwritten to to “establish . . . a Graduate School, where men and women dedicated to public service may prepare themselves for careers in government service”– today represents a fund that has grown to over $840 million.

Robertson claims that Princeton has “improperly spent more than $207 million (…) and that between 1990 and 2003, only about 10 percent of the graduates funded by the foundation went into international affairs jobs with the federal government.” (Interesting to note that Princeton told the Spectator that “85 percent of WWS graduates have taken employment in public service over the past three years,” although that statistic doesn’t describe “government service in isolation,” whatever that means).

The lesson learned from the Robertson case is that large, restricted donations– especially those earmarked for students– can handcuff the flexibility of a University’s administration.

On the bright side: I suppose you could assume that Columbia’s reliance on student tuition for revenue provides it with more flexibility, right? That a lower share of “restricted” alumni donations allows for greater administrative freedom?

If President Lee Bollinger’s recent opening address to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is any indication, I would speculate that’s not the case. As I’ve previously suggested, donors’ contributions (and more specifically, their threat of withholding future contributions) shaped the embarrassingly political nature of that speech.

Indeed, it seems to be the case in any budget that administrator’s are most attentive to the most volatile component. This is the case with stocks in mutual funds or taxes in national budgets. And it is clearly the case with alumni donations in University income statements.

Meanwhile, not only are students left without any recourse to protest (financially) the actions and decisions of their institutional leaders, but they must also bear the brunt of our predecessors’ capriciousness, or administration’s ineptitude. That is to say, to balance the books, more students are admitted at higher cost of attendance. And that in turn means greater competition for jobs, and rising indebtedness. Rising indebtedness means (even more) constraint in career choice.

And even if the constrained career choice directs alumni into careers and positions of higher lifetime earnings, I suspect that students’ long memories of Columbia’s stinginess will not translate well to future endowments.

But maybe I’m just bitter.

Jonathan Host is a first-year MIA studying Advanced Policy and Economic Analysis. He writes for fun on his blog http://www.snarkybehavior.com .

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