Author Topic: Does financially supporting US universities make sense?  (Read 6338 times)

markbrynn

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Does financially supporting US universities make sense?
« on: January 11, 2016, 03:27:30 AM »
In many posts on this forum, I hear about people wanting to donate money to their alma mater (or local university) or to set up scholarship funds (most recently in a post about what to do with lottery winnings).

Given that many people also think that the cost of US universities has spiralled out of control, why would you pump more money into a system that is already awash with money (largely from the easy to get student loans that so many are saddled with for years)? Even if you'd like to support education and make it easier for a certain group of people to get a degree, isn't this an inefficient use of money as your money would buy less than 10 undergraduate degrees per million spent (just an approximation of what the costs are).

I went to a pretty expensive school. Looking back it seems like it was a four year luxury vacation from the real world. It provided a much easier and more luxurious life than anything I could afford (or chose to afford) for many years afterwards. I think most of the kids there today have a fancier life than many forum members choose to have even when they could afford more. Why support this behaviour/system?

seattlecyclone

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Re: Does financially supporting US universities make sense?
« Reply #1 on: January 11, 2016, 06:19:45 AM »
My wife and I do donate some to the university we graduated from (a state school). We both received some very generous scholarships that put us in a good financial position coming out of college and we want to pay it forward.

I agree that universities waste a lot of money on frivolous things, and this has caused costs to spiral upwards. We make sure to designate our gifts for scholarships specifically. This isn't 100% foolproof since money is fungible and undesignated gifts can therefore still be used for shiny new buildings and such, but what's the alternative? Withhold donations in an attempt to "starve the beast," forcing real, actual students to take out more and more loans until the universities see the error of their ways? That just doesn't feel right to me.

nereo

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Re: Does financially supporting US universities make sense?
« Reply #2 on: January 11, 2016, 06:52:35 AM »
Interesting topic

I think there is actually two components to your question which must be looked at individually as well as in tandem.
1) how much good (dollar for dollar) does donating money to a University do?
2) Are donations contributing to the steadily increasing cost for an individual to get their undergraduate degree?

The answers are a, predictably, really complicated.  Look at #1 - it depends a great deal on the individual university, and who specifically you donate money to.  Typically small-dollar donations made to the university just get co-mingled into the general fund and spent on whatever the university is trying to build or do at present.  This can vary from a new super-stadium for basketball games or to purchasing genetic sequencing machines for the biology department.  In that light, it's very university specific.  I don't donate to one of my alma maters because lately they've been spending it all trying to become a big sports school.
Alternatively, donations can be 'ear-marked' for specific purposes.  Individual fundraising efforts within the university funnel money toward specific purposes (e.g booster clubs, graduate scholarships, departmental funds).  Despite the fungibility of money these donations really do help the specific program/purpose you are donating to, since departments tend to have a base-level of funding and then fight tooth and nail against each other for every grant, donation etc.  Then there's the mega-donors you suggested (e.g. lottery winners).  Donate several $100k and you can dictate where it goes.  Some donations stoke the donor's ego (examples:  the "Mark-Brynn student center") but even these do help the university accomplish goals.

As for whether these donations just fuel the cycle of ever increasing student costs... well that's a much more complex argument. Student Loans and lots of money sloshing about the system certainly has hurt the affordability of attending university.  So also has the competitive grant process.  To explain, over the last several decades the amount of money budgeted (e.g. University X will be given $y annually) towards universities has shrank, while the amount they can get via competitive grants has steadily increased.  This fosters a lot of competition - which can be both very good and very bad.  It pushes universities to be more competitive (generally good), but it also places an emphasis on high-profile professors and cutting-edge research (both of which are very expensive).  It's created a runaway loop where in order to get a lot of state and federal funding you need cutting edge departments with lots of very, very expensive equipment and the best professors (who ultiamtely write the grants and get the money the universities now depend on).  Ironicially, the lowly undergraduate who is just trying to get a quality education doesn't really factor into this money chase.  At most universities the undergrads are seen as costing money, while productive professors and graduate students create money.

So in summary:  How 'far' your donation goes to a university ultimately depends on the specific university, and whether you are donating to 'general funds' or donating to a specific cause that's very near and dear to your heart.  Donations certainly do add to the ever increasing arms-race for research dollars, but it's not one of the underlying causes. 
Is donating worth it?  Up to you - but I'd argue that it can be the absolute best way that typical individuals can influence how our higher education system works.  Universities will chase money the way politicians chase votes - if donors start saying they only want to support "MMM studies" and they won't donate any money to the "department of consumerism" they'll quickly bolster the former at the expense of the latter.  In a very real sense it's shaping our education system by voting with your pocketbook.  If you're wondering why many schools have focused so heavily on sports, it's because that's where the money and the support lies. 

Full disclosure:  I am currently finishing my PhD and work within large universities.
« Last Edit: January 11, 2016, 08:41:55 AM by nereo »

Greystache

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Re: Does financially supporting US universities make sense?
« Reply #3 on: January 11, 2016, 07:55:41 AM »
My wife and I have contributed to our school for the last 30 years.  We both went to the same state university in Iowa.  Our educations were heavily subsidized by the Iowa taxpayers.  We both left for high paying jobs in California within days of graduating. It always seemed a little unfair to take our education from Iowa and run to California. Our new home state has been the recipient of our high taxes that resulted from our well-paying careers that would not have been possible without our degrees. So yeah, we make token contributions to assuage our guilt.

Gondolin

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Re: Does financially supporting US universities make sense?
« Reply #4 on: January 11, 2016, 08:29:34 AM »
+1 to Nereo's post that "it's complicated"

Personally, I don't give to my school because:
A) I'm trying to find my retirement here
B) I found it very distasteful that my school starts begging for donations the day students graduate even though the school knows that most of these students have tens of thousands of student debt.
C).... Especially since this school has a multi billion dollar endowment which it pays hedge fund managers >$100m a year to manage then runs sob story campaigns about how they need alumni to raise the $25m for a new Rec center.

WerKater

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Re: Does financially supporting US universities make sense?
« Reply #5 on: January 11, 2016, 09:32:59 AM »
Just an idea: Maybe there is a way to donate not to the university but to some intermediary organisation. Fo example one that funds scholarships for students or one that awards research grants?
Neither really solves the fungibility problem but at least your money would be somewhat more directed.

ShortInSeattle

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Re: Does financially supporting US universities make sense?
« Reply #6 on: January 11, 2016, 11:33:55 AM »
I think it makes as much sense as any other type of charitable donation, assuming that those dollars go to scholarships and the like.

I never donated to my alma mater. Possibly it's because I never knew anyone who benefited from university scholarships - I was pretty broke and financed my way through school with part-time jobs and lots of loans so I assume other students can do the same. Also, I saw a fair amount of what I deemed wasteful spending at my university (particularly gold-plated facilities for athletes) so I never got the impression they were hurting for money.

In general I believe other causes are more worthy. It's hard to contribute to the school building multi-million dollar facilities for jocks when there are local people who can't afford enough food to eat.

No disrespect to the jocks. :)

SIS

Gemma

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Re: Does financially supporting US universities make sense?
« Reply #7 on: January 11, 2016, 11:40:15 AM »
I went to a small state school for undergrad and I do donate money to the school, but I give specifically to my department so I know exactly what the money is used for. As a student, I did benefit from money from alumni donations to fund field trips and research and so I like that I can give back. My company will match it 3:1, so the school receives an added benefit from that as well.

Chris22

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Re: Does financially supporting US universities make sense?
« Reply #8 on: January 11, 2016, 11:47:12 AM »
isn't this an inefficient use of money as your money would buy less than 10 undergraduate degrees per million spent (just an approximation of what the costs are).

Is that true?  I don't know the answer.  But I would assume that if I gave $1M, I'd be paying the cost, not the price.  IOW, they CHARGE (the price is) $25k/yr, but the COST per marginal student is probably much less, so rather than paying for 10 students to go to school, I might be paying for 15 or more.  I don't know. 

Schaefer Light

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Re: Does financially supporting US universities make sense?
« Reply #9 on: January 11, 2016, 12:06:28 PM »
Also, I saw a fair amount of what I deemed wasteful spending at my university (particularly gold-plated facilities for athletes) so I never got the impression they were hurting for money.

In general I believe other causes are more worthy. It's hard to contribute to the school building multi-million dollar facilities for jocks when there are local people who can't afford enough food to eat.
Those multi-million dollar facilities for athletes are typically not paid for by the school itself.  They're almost always funded by the athletic booster club.

Capsu78

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Re: Does financially supporting US universities make sense?
« Reply #10 on: January 11, 2016, 12:55:12 PM »
Campus protest music- Circa 2016:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-lt8lzLhVJo

The elephant in the room for me is the tax treatment of the endowment funds- seems to give the biggest advantage to the relatively few high end schools (the Ivy's) and much less advantage to the schools that handle many more students per capita.   
« Last Edit: January 11, 2016, 01:08:09 PM by Capsu78 »

Ramblin' Ma'am

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Re: Does financially supporting US universities make sense?
« Reply #11 on: January 11, 2016, 02:24:02 PM »
I do give small amounts to my alma mater (maybe $50 a year during fundraising campaigns), but I earmark it for the scholarship fund.

markbrynn

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Re: Does financially supporting US universities make sense?
« Reply #12 on: January 12, 2016, 12:45:15 AM »
Quote
Just an idea: Maybe there is a way to donate not to the university but to some intermediary organisation. Fo example one that funds scholarships for students or one that awards research grants?

This seems to be a common answer (donate to a department or specific initiative, or in this case, to an intermediary). The problem I see is that the school still gets the same amount of money per student for tuition (and books and room and board) no matter where the money comes from. And those rates are too high (in my opinion, though I don't think I'm the only one).

My real question, I suppose, is how to force schools to cut back the excess and, therefore, be able to lower the costs. Probably the answer is the same as every high cost item that people around here avoid, just not to participate. There are lower cost schools (with good enough standards/reputations); go to one of those. I'm just curious if any of you have ideas that I'm not seeing.

soccerluvof4

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Re: Does financially supporting US universities make sense?
« Reply #13 on: January 12, 2016, 07:12:00 AM »
This to me is where there is a huge problem in our whole school system. I live in an area of high taxes with good schools but the grades school is always whining about needing stuff. The HS wants to raise 3 million for repairs but is also at the same time looking to raise money to build soccer rooms below the soccer dugouts which even with kids in soccer is ludicrous. And then yes we too get donation requests all the time from my DW's college for donations. I like giving to what I can control so in any case I say i wont give unless my name is not mentioned and it goes here...... with documentation.

pbkmaine

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Re: Does financially supporting US universities make sense?
« Reply #14 on: January 12, 2016, 07:23:20 AM »
A friend of mine received a full scholarship to law school. At her financial aid meeting, she signed a pledge to make future donations at least equal to her aid so that others could be helped. She has done so.

Sid Hoffman

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Re: Does financially supporting US universities make sense?
« Reply #15 on: January 12, 2016, 01:55:52 PM »
Given that many people also think that the cost of US universities has spiralled out of control, why would you pump more money into a system that is already awash with money (largely from the easy to get student loans that so many are saddled with for years)?

I've started to wonder if a rebate system would help actually control costs.  Basically Medicare for Colleges.  For those unfamiliar, healthcare costs have been rising like crazy for more than a decade now but the cost increases are the smallest for those who use Medicare because they have price fixed reimbursement rates.

Suppose for a moment we attempt the "free college for everyone" that seems to be popular now.  Except instead of sending $60,000/year in taxpayer money to Harvard to take in as many students as they can, the system is a reimbursement system managed through each college's financial administration office where they currently collect tuition money.  So you take out, say, a $10,000 student loan that acts as a float account.  You sign up for 15 credit-hours of classes at a cost of $492/credit-hour.  So $7380 is deducted from your student loan float account.  You pass all your classes but one, at 3 CH/class.  The government reimburses a maximum of $500/credit-hour for each class you pass.  Since you passed 12-CH worth of classes, the government reimburses your float account for $5904.  The class you failed does NOT then cost taxpayers money, and in the mean time you still got $5904 worth of college credits at taxpayer expense.  Your classload only cost you $1476 for the failed class.  Pass all your classes and your float account is right back up to $10,000 in it.

Now suppose you do a postgraduate program at $850/credit hour.  The same rules all apply.  It costs you $12,750 up front (so you'll need a larger float account) and you get reimbursed for $7500 after passing all the classes, bringing your out of pocket cost down to $5250.  Since postgraduate degrees will statistically put you in a higher earning bracket, you should be able to justify this, especially since people justify it today even with paying 100% of the cost themselves.  Alternately, THIS is where grants and scholarship money can come in to play, rather than paying just basic degree tuition.

So back to Harvard.  A quick check says it's $1166 per credit hour.  This is where people make the real decisions: Do I go to state university where I can get a degree for free, or do I spent a crapload of money to go to Harvard?  Currently, I think people get suckered into spending more because they figure "Hey, if I'm going to get into debt, why not get into a LOT of debt?"  We could instead frame the discussion as affordable colleges being FREE and the expensive colleges cost you a bunch of money.  That provides an incentive for state universities to hold their tuition costs at just barely below the legal reimbursement limit so they can continue to advertise that they offer free college.

It's also possible the law of unintended consequences will kick in anyway, and colleges which were previously $500/credit hour will raise their rates to $1000/credit hour, on the grounds that if people could afford the $500/hour, they can still afford $500/hour and pocket the free $500 from the government.  I suppose you fix that by setting a phase-out limit.  Such as you only get up to $500/hour, but the reimbursement decreases for costs over $500/hour.  You'll also then have to put a regulatory limit on the cost of books, fees, taxes, etc.  Otherwise it will be like old school land line phone bills where the landline is $9 but you have $18 in taxes and fees.

ender

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Re: Does financially supporting US universities make sense?
« Reply #16 on: January 12, 2016, 02:10:08 PM »
B) I found it very distasteful that my school starts begging for donations the day students graduate even though the school knows that most of these students have tens of thousands of student debt.

+1

Plus, I've been in grad school which gave me a deep understanding of how my university uses money.

I'd be fine if my university clearly uses it for education - not research, administration, etc. But many (most?) money at my university is not direct student value add.

frugalnacho

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Re: Does financially supporting US universities make sense?
« Reply #17 on: January 12, 2016, 02:15:11 PM »
No.  I don't donate to my alma mater because:

1. Fuck them greedy sons of bitches, they fleeced me and everyone else for all they could while they had the chance
2. They essentially told me to fuck off when I sought out job placement through them
3. They essentially told me to fuck off when I sought out new engineers in need of job placement

HazelStone

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Re: Does financially supporting US universities make sense?
« Reply #18 on: January 13, 2016, 10:49:24 AM »
If I got a major windfall, I would donate the amount of scholarship money my alma mater gave me, adjusted for inflation and modest interest. I would probably earmark it for specific initiatives, because to hell with the football stadium. It is payback, that is all; when it came time for me to do my (required) internship, the university left OPEN the position in charge of internship/job placement. They welched on what is supposed to be a significant part of a university program's value.

Instead, the big money would go to the medical school where my (late) father in law taught. The loans that new doctors carry now give a disincentive to go into primary care. Oh, and I'd pay off SIL's med school debt.

nereo

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Re: Does financially supporting US universities make sense?
« Reply #19 on: January 13, 2016, 12:11:19 PM »
If I got a major windfall, I would donate the amount of scholarship money my alma mater gave me, adjusted for inflation and modest interest. I would probably earmark it for specific initiatives, because to hell with the football stadium. It is payback, that is all; when it came time for me to do my (required) internship, the university left OPEN the position in charge of internship/job placement. They welched on what is supposed to be a significant part of a university program's value.

Northeastern?

tobitonic

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Re: Does financially supporting US universities make sense?
« Reply #20 on: January 13, 2016, 08:55:09 PM »
No way no how. The perverse relationship between lending institutions, state and federal funding, and public higher education is second only to similar relationships in health care and military spending. I intend to play as small of a rule in supporting that machine as possible.

nobodyspecial

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Re: Does financially supporting US universities make sense?
« Reply #21 on: January 13, 2016, 10:45:08 PM »
Quote
Since postgraduate degrees will statistically put you in a higher earning bracket, you should be able to justify this,
My undergrad college sends me begging letters, the IVY league place I did my PhD doesn't.
I met somebody who worked in the alumni office - they don't bother  sending letters to PhDs because they assume they won't be making enough salary for it to be worth asking them for money

kasperle

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Re: Does financially supporting US universities make sense?
« Reply #22 on: January 17, 2016, 10:45:50 AM »
I do donate to my college. I had no financial support from my family, and refused to go to any school that would land me in a crazy amount of debt (even though I had absolutely no sense of how money worked, it just seemed like something to avoid).

I ended up getting accepted into a great little college that cost on the order of $60k/yr  I was able to attend due to a full-ride, need-based scholarship. In a way, I feel (voluntarily) indebted to them. Although I'm not employed in the field that my degree is in, I do think it was a great choice, and one that's helped me in life.

My college lets me select where I want to donate the cash, so I always choose need-based scholarships. I love feeling like I am helping students who might be in a similar place that I was just a few years ago!

markbrynn

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Re: Does financially supporting US universities make sense?
« Reply #23 on: January 18, 2016, 02:09:13 AM »
Quote
I ended up getting accepted into a great little college that cost on the order of $60k/yr I was able to attend due to a full-ride, need-based scholarship. In a way, I feel (voluntarily) indebted to them. Although I'm not employed in the field that my degree is in, I do think it was a great choice, and one that's helped me in life.

This is the sentiment I don't quite understand. As far as I know, the college didn't give this person a scholarship, did they? It was a donor (private citizen or company). And these donations are allowing the colleges/universities to charge $60k/year.

Is the sentiment of the above quote the problem? That going to university has helped so many of us to find good jobs, earn good money and therefore are the foundation of our (hopefully) happy lives? It's understandable emotionally, but in reality it's a bit like thanking Apple for allowing you to pay them $800 for a smart phone. And if somebody sponsored you to get your smart phone for free (say your company), then thanking Apple that you were allowed to use their phone for free.

Apples

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Re: Does financially supporting US universities make sense?
« Reply #24 on: January 18, 2016, 08:13:32 AM »
OK, question that doesn't really add to this fascinating discussion.

Background:  I got merit-based scholarships to attend the state university I went to.  I was an out of state student who got admitted to the Honors College (and then after that a special job placement program within the college).  Using round numbers, in-state tuition was $15k, room and board was $8k, and out of state part of the tuition was $17k.  That was the "price".  Due to being accepted into the Honors College, I got room and board free.  Then for placing into the job placement program, I got the out of state portion of my tuition covered, plus a weekly stipend of $40 (which hey, as a freshman in the dorm I felt rich on that).  For being a National Merit semifinalist, I got $4k or $5k (I forget at this point).  Finally, I also got a named scholarship for $3k per year.  That left a portion of the in state tuition for me to pay.  I had a scholarship from home that covered that.

The vast majority of the scholarships I qualified for were just programs the university had in place to recruit "high-achieving" students away from other universities because this one's price tag was so low with still good opportunities.  I was fully aware of this as a senior in high school.  All of the money made this university significantly cheaper than my own in-state school, and the Ivy I was considering.  Because my career didn't depend on having the Ivy degree, and I went to school in 2009 when people were all out of jobs and hating their student loans, I chose the less expensive school.

Finally, the question:  Does the school actually take money from one account to another to "pay" for all of the scholarships I received?  Does it just have written into the budget that $X million won't come in as tuition money due to the merit aid we plan to use that doesn't come from another source?  And are either of those numbers actually the over $30k I received in scholarships, or are they some portion of that, the "cost" of my attendance that another poster alluded to above?  Like is my cost of attendance really just half of room and board plus $5k or something, so they were in reality only losing a few thousand per year on my attendance.  I always assumed that free rides were just written into the budget as not receiving tuition from 10 students or something, but never thought about how schools deal with merit aid like my situation.

nereo

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Re: Does financially supporting US universities make sense?
« Reply #25 on: January 18, 2016, 08:27:26 AM »

Finally, the question:  Does the school actually take money from one account to another to "pay" for all of the scholarships I received?  Does it just have written into the budget that $X million won't come in as tuition money due to the merit aid we plan to use that doesn't come from another source?  And are either of those numbers actually the over $30k I received in scholarships, or are they some portion of that, the "cost" of my attendance that another poster alluded to above?  Like is my cost of attendance really just half of room and board plus $5k or something, so they were in reality only losing a few thousand per year on my attendance.  I always assumed that free rides were just written into the budget as not receiving tuition from 10 students or something, but never thought about how schools deal with merit aid like my situation.

You've just highlighted one of the biggest issues about the higher education system in the US: The quoted price is almost never the price.  I believe at top-tier schools fewer than 50% of the students actually pay the quoted tuition, and most qualify for some form of scholarship or financial aid.  News stories love to run shocking headlines like "Columbia Student Tuition tops $53k this year!" but only a small minority will ever pay this amount.

To answer your question though - there's less 'taking' from one account to pay for another account then you might think.  While a university presents itself as a single entity and logic might suggest that money would slosh from one program to another, in reality it's a fractious collection of beasts.  Each department fights the others tooth and nail to keep every dollar. 

Also - the money that a large research university collects from undergraduate tuitions can be a small portion of their operating budget.  In a very real sense universities consider each undergrad to be 'costing' them money, even though they are (at least on paper) paying $20-40k to attend.  Most universities get more money through the state & federal budget, federal grants, endowments and donations than they do from tuition. That's why they can discount tuition so much for so many - getting top-notch students who then help generate federal grants or ultimately get high-paying jobs and donate large sums back to the university has proven to be a better business model than getting as much in tuition as they can for ~4 years.

clarkfan1979

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Re: Does financially supporting US universities make sense?
« Reply #26 on: January 18, 2016, 11:00:47 AM »
I will start giving money to my previous colleges once I am done paying my student loans. The wealthiest countries in the world tend to be the most educated. Most developed countries subsidize higher education for their citizens through taxes because the country as a whole tends to do better when their citizens have a higher education level.

nereo

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Re: Does financially supporting US universities make sense?
« Reply #27 on: January 18, 2016, 11:38:29 AM »
I will start giving money to my previous colleges once I am done paying my student loans. The wealthiest countries in the world tend to be the most educated. Most developed countries subsidize higher education for their citizens through taxes because the country as a whole tends to do better when their citizens have a higher education level.
Yup, this is what we do in the United States (albeit in an often round-about and complex way).

PhysicianOnFIRE

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Re: Does financially supporting US universities make sense?
« Reply #28 on: January 18, 2016, 02:19:13 PM »
Having benefitted from numerous scholarships, I choose to give back to my alma mater.  I had 8 good years there.  My mother, my father, and his father were all educated there. 

I also give generously by being in the highest state income tax bracket.  But that income wouldn't be possible without the education I received there.  It's like a money circle being completed.

Tabaxus

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Re: Does financially supporting US universities make sense?
« Reply #29 on: January 18, 2016, 02:25:12 PM »
My time in law school was a ridiculous waste of time and an even larger waste of money.  It enabled me to get a job because the legal market is a cartel, but I paid my money for my degree, and they will never get another penny from me again, at least not voluntarily.  The school has just gotten worse/more out of touch with the actual legal environment since then.  The only way I will ever give a dime to my alma matter is when it is required of me because of the ridiculous pressure to donate to make our employment statistics look good (this happens at basically every firm). 

At that point, I will give the absolute bare minimum amount, and only because it isn't a "donation" as much as it is a "cost of doing business," like many of the other charities we get arm-twisted into donating to. 

« Last Edit: January 18, 2016, 02:26:58 PM by Tabaxus »