One blogger’s personal bridge to nowhere

Pick one: college or newspapers?

Steve Coll at The New Yorker is baffled at how a small liberal arts college can have more funds at its disposal than a venerable institution of print media.

williams-collegeNot to pick on any one institution, but, from a constitutional perspective, how did we end up in a society where Williams College has (or had, before September) an endowment well in excess of one billion dollars, while the Washington Post, a fountainhead of Watergate and so much other skeptical and investigative reporting critical to the republic’s health, is in jeopardy. I’m sure that Williams-generated nostalgia in the emotional lives of wealthy people is hard to overestimate, but still …

Yglesias follows up on the point:

One problem here is just that The Washington Post is no Williams. Elite American colleges, whether or not they actually do a good job of educating young people, do a VERY good job of producing nostalgic alumni and prestige for themselves.

True enough, but how many alumni donors are donating out of a sense of nostalgia? Maybe — and as a resolute non-donor to my small elite liberal arts college of choice, this is somewhat ironic — I am being too naive, but don’t many alumni probably donate out of a sense of the value of a liberal education? That may just be the propaganda that we mouth, but even a cynic should acknowledge that the well of “nostalgia” is probably only so deep. A sense of “responsibility” or “appreciation” may be too much, but “guilt tripping” probably accounts for some small pool of the funds.

For the big donors, of course, donating to their alma mater has just become a matter of course; it’s an established practice to do so, so it’s a safe and acceptable place to invest one’s money. Donating to newspapers is not, which is of course at the crux of Coll’s and Yglesias’ arguments. But the unspoken corollary of this world we’ve ended up in, where Williams is awash with money but the Post is near bankrupt, is that people donate to colleges for a point as well, and that these colleges, as much or more than one particular industry, have a certain value.

(image from flickr user SERSeanCrane under a Creative Commons license)

January 30, 2009 - Posted by | media, Swarthmore | , , ,


  1. In the name of full disclosure I am a steadfast fundraising volunteer for my small elite liberal arts college of choice, so there’s my bias, but I think that there is at least another possible explanations as to why people donate to their colleges and not to the Washington Post.

    For some alums, giving donations is their way of giving back. At most of these sorts of schools everyone benefits from financial aid, even for those paying full tuition the cost-per-student of running the university exceeds the amount of total tuition (at Wes this “silent scholarship” was around $16k last time I checked). Maybe you include this in the “guilt” category but I would say its different.

    I don’t have the same kind of relationship with any newspaper but more importantly aren’t they (at least in theory) for-profit corporations? Isn’t that really the problem? I must admit that currently I free-ride off public programming but when it comes down to it NPR has a much better chance of getting a check from me than does the Post.

    Comment by anothergradstudentcliche | January 30, 2009 | Reply

  2. neither schools nor newspapers can educate bill o’reilly. that’s the problem

    Comment by papa bear | February 1, 2009 | Reply

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