Education has always been considered the great equalizer. As the income gaps have continued to grow, finding solutions to inequality is more significant than ever.
In his podcast My Little Hundred Million, Malcolm Gladwell presents two different interpretations of the role that education can play in mitigating inequality. One focuses on fostering environments in which the brightest students can flourish to aid society, while the other seeks to provide a sufficient education to the majority of students, regardless of their perceived potential to enact “large” change.
Though both interpretations have benefits and faults, the majority of donations are to schools that are in the spirit of the first philosophy. More than 25% of all college donations in 2015 - a whopping $11.6 billion worth - went to a mere twenty private colleges, the top three being Harvard, Stanford, and University of Southern California, all of which have endowments worth billions of dollars.
In contrast, Gladwell’s podcast follows the impact of philanthropist Henry Rowan’s $100 million gift to Glassboro State College, a small New Jersey public university with an endowment of $500,000 at the time. Rowan’s donation allowed Glassboro to double its enrollment, develop an award-winning engineering school, and become regarded as a research institution. It is now ranked by US News as the third best public school in the country.
Rowan graduated from MIT and had virtually no educational connections to Glassboro State College. Ten years after the first engineering class graduated, Rowan expressed, “There’s nothing more important for the continued excellence of our country than education.” And truly, he impacted the education of thousands of students by revolutionizing the health and quality of an entire university.
America’s top private universities are already considered the best in the world. When billionaires’ wallets only feed the schools at the top, they improve the education at those schools by a small margin compared to the vast change a large donation to a smaller, struggling university can bring. The impact of a million dollars differs when it goes to improving the food at Bowdoin, rather than turning the lights on for the entire Glassboro State College.
The gifts to the top further widen the wealth inequality gap of education systems. While scholarships funded by donations allow the attendance of worthy students who cannot afford these universities’ significantly larger price tags, many students who attend come from the upper or upper middle class of America. According to a study done by the Yale Daily News, 56% of Yale’s Class of 2019 was made up of students whose household income is in the top 13% of the nation. Improving the quality of education at a smaller public school would most directly impact the segment of the population least represented in many prestigious private schools.
The two different types of donations and the institutions they support directly correspond to each side of Gladwell’s argument. Prestigious institutions like Stanford were founded with the purpose of educating “cultured and useful citizens...to promote the public welfare by exercising an influence in behalf of humanity and civilization,’ which mirrors the first method of training the perceived brightest for future success. A 1992 New York Times article covering his donation quoted him as saying “It is my hope that my gift will have a great effect on the area and the people of the area.” His broad-encompassing will fits Gladwell’s second interpretation: grants to local schools enrich their immediate areas.
Both interpretations have worth, but right now only one is actively being funded. As the inequality gap continues to widen, perhaps we need some balance.