As soon as news hit of Michael Bloomberg’s latest donation to Johns Hopkins University, the praise—and the critiques—started rolling in. If you missed it, the billionaire and former New York City mayor announced last week that he would be giving $1.8 billion to his alma mater to increase need-based financial aid for low- and middle-income students.
Bloomberg’s goal, he wrote in The New York Times, was that “no qualified high school student should ever be barred entrance to a college based on his or her family’s bank account.”
That’s a well-meaning goal, but it misses the mark on promoting economic mobility more broadly, his ultimate aim, and the purported aim of much of education philanthropy. Bloomberg’s gift will no doubt transform lives. But, as critics have noted, it will affect precious few. Of the 7 million undergraduates nationwide who are eligible for federal Pell Grants that help low-income students, Johns Hopkins currently enrolls about 900. The university says that enabled by Bloomberg’s gift, it plans to increase that number substantially, with a goal of Pell-eligible students accounting for 20% of its 6,000 undergraduates. That would be up from 15% today, but still well shy of the national average of 32% at all two- and four-year institutions.
Unless Johns Hopkins expands its undergraduate enrollment, that increase amounts to only 300 more low-income students. The university also plans to eliminate loans for all students eligible for financial aid, including those from middle-income families. But, if we’re serious about ensuring that higher education actually leads to greater economic mobility, that math—$1.8 billion and 300 low-income students every four years—simply doesn’t add up. It’s too costly and inefficient.
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