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Jewish World Review August 28, 2001 / 9 Elul, 5761

Wick Sloane

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Consumer Reports

Annoying the alumni: Why must 'elite colleges' keep raising money faster than Bonnie and Clyde? -- Do the four stages of grief - denial, anger, sorrow, acceptance - apply to tremendous good fortune, too?

They must, because denial is the only kind explanation I have for the fund-raising letters that continue to arrive in my mailbox from my alma mater, Williams College in Massachusetts.

By tremendous good fortune, I mean this: Williams, a small liberal arts college with an elite reputation, enjoyed a gain of $500 million in its endowment in fiscal 2000. That was on top of $1 billion already there.

This is a stupendous amount of money for a school with fewer than 2,000 students.

So why in the world does Williams need my money, too? It's not that I'm too cheap to give. I just don't understand why Williams and a number of equally well-off colleges and universities need more money. Or why they don't do more with the money they have.

The operating budget of Williams is $100 million. At a 10-percent return, Williams' endowment income is $150 million. That's more than enough by itself to pay annual expenses - even without gift income or tuition and fees.

Does the college have plans to decrease tuition? Ha! Plans to increase faculty salaries or the number of students taught? None. In this, Williams is just like Harvard, Stanford, Bryn Mawr and many others.

So these recent windfalls pose two questions:

Why do elite colleges cost $30,000 and rising?

Why do they need to keep raising money faster than Bonnie and Clyde?

I have an Ivy League business degree. I have worked in investment management. Folks throughout higher education privately admit my math is correct. This is a values question.

Eliminating tuition, obvious as that looks to me, is deemed unacceptable. "You mean subsidize the rich? Never!"

Why not at least do as Princeton has, replacing loans with grants? This makes tuition more affordable to middle-class students, while preserving the "need-blind" admissions policy that opens the Ivy door to the poor.

"We think Princeton's wrong," a Williams trustee told me. I can't find five people in higher education who will discuss publicly the implications of this new wealth. All I hear are alibis:

"Restricted gifts prevent using the money elsewhere." Why not talk with the donors?

"We have to protect against inflation." What inflation?

Why not use some of the excess to build a library in a nearby struggling town or neighborhood? "That's not our core mission. We can't be distracted!"

Perhaps this idea of core mission is an opening to a new conversation.

Education is the mission. I've done four years of hard time on a small-city school board. The condition of elementary and secondary education in the United States is the disgrace of us baby boomers. Our parents did so much more for our classmates and us than we have done for this generation of children.

As Williams, Penn and Princeton prove, great educations are available. The problem is that too few kids in too few towns get a K-12 education that prepares them for a great college.

What can fix schools fast? More great teachers.

What if colleges made the same deal for public-school teachers that West Point and Annapolis make for military officers? No tuition as long as you serve for a set time after graduation; why not six years? Why not offer free tuition for the children of graduates who are teachers for 15 years?

Some states have taken a step in this direction, offering loan forgiveness to teachers in needy schools or understaffed subjects. Of course, if rich, tax-exempt colleges charged would-be teachers less, you wouldn't need to offer loan forgiveness subsidized by other taxpayers.

A Princeton friend and I are going to invite the presidents of our colleges to lunch to sell this idea.

Wish us luck.

JWR contributor Wick Sloane, CEO of k@tapult Inc. He resides in Cambridge, Mass. Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, Wick Sloane