Archive for July, 2011

Charitable Questions

July 10, 2011

I recently decided to stop donating to my alama mater (which will go unnamed for now). Granted, I’ve only given them $20 a year for the last three years, usually around Christmas. But the more I’ve thought about it, the less sense it makes to donate even that much. I came to this conclusion by asking myself a few questions:

Is donating to my alama mater a smart, personal financial decision?

I’m paying off student loans and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, so the answer is clearly no. Yes, donating should increase the franchise value of my school by hopefully making a small contribution to increasing its US News ranking, thereby providing me with (hopefully) better future career prospects. But the further removed from college I am, the less the name on my resume matters, and the more interest will accrue to my student loans. It seems odd to donate to my school when I am effectively paying for it every month. The answer to this question is a clear “no.”

Don’t be a selfish bastard! Don’t you want to help students who were in the same position you were a few years ago?

I have a few responses to this.

First, I am still a relatively poor recent graduate. I don’t see why I should be guilted into donating for this reason, especially given my loans.

Second, yes, donating to my college is one way to help current students. Another way is for the school itself to cut spending on shiny new buildings, assistant deans, sundry provosts, and so forth. This is analogous to taxes: I think most people would be happier to pay taxes if they thought their money was being spent efficiently, and not to enrich the lucky, undeserving, and well connected. I don’t think that my school is doing anything nefarious with the money, but the institution is certainly spending money on things that I wouldn’t.

If I may digress, it blows my mind that that a solid, reasonably highly ranked but non-ivy private school, such as Brandeis, Tufts, Rochester, Emory, etc. hasn’t decided to slash spending across the board and instead offer dirt cheap (or free) tuition to everyone. They could undercut their competitor schools and quite possibly steal talent from the Harvards and Yales of the world.

Perhaps you’re not a selfish bastard. But don’t you feel an obligation to help those that are less fortunate than yourself?

Yes, and it’s become increasingly clear that donating to a relatively wealthy, highly ranked private university with a large base of octoogenarian donors does not provide me with the most bang for my charitable buck.

You might say that a college education is necessary to get anywhere in the world, and funding a better than average school such as yours is a matter of “social justice.” True enough, although there are far better schools to donate too if your mission is to advance social justice, and they tend not to be the sorts of schools one would normally think of, as Matt Yglesias pointed out in a recent blog post:

http://thinkprogress.org/yglesias/2011/05/26/201126/harvard-is-not-a-mechanism-of-social-justice/

Community colleges too would likely be produce more social justice per dollar donated as students their tend to be disproportionably from families with less money and/or social capital.

Up until now I’ve only been thinking about helping students in the U.S. I can likely get even more return for my charitable dollars by donating to organizations in countries that are actually poor, such as Cambodia or Zimbabwe.

In addition, there are other places that I find at least as appealing to donate money to as education. I can help truly poor people on the other side of the world by donating to Oxfam and relatively poor people in my backyard by donating to a DC soup kitchen. I can also donate to places that advance causes I believe in, such as the Cato Institute, Institute for Humane Studies, Kahn Academy, MIT OpenCourseware, or the Seasteading Institute.

Maybe my thoughts will change on this over the next couple of years. For now, though, it seems to me that donating to a highly ranked private school (or a museum, foundation, etc.) is more of a high end consumption good than anything else.

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