Donating To Your Fancy College Is A Consumption Good, Not An Act Of Charity

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My instant classic blog post “Harvard Is Not A Mechanism Of Social Justce” has spawned an interesting exchange at the website of The Utopian, a magazine dedicated to ethics and public affairs. Max Novendstern, who thinks I’m wrong, is in fact wrong himself which you can tell from the fact that he says “To make his case, [Yglesias] sets up a straw man — namely, the idea that we give Senior Gifts primarily to ‘promote social justice.'”

I, however, have set up no such straw man. Rather, the senior gift advocates I was criticizing said Harvard seniors should donate to the school because doing so is an effective means of promoting social justice. Emma Saunders-Hastings, critiquing Novendstern, has this right. If we take for granted that it’s morally acceptable for a middle class person living in a rich country to purchase luxury consumption goods—I bought some Grado SR-80 headphones a couple of weeks ago, for example—then donating to a well-endowed private university doesn’t seem worse in any clear way. But that would be the right way to think about it—you’re donating to your old college as a kind of luxury consumption good. Such donations are, however, primarily construed as a form of charity and the fact of the matter is that they’re not a very good use of your charitable dollar. Trying to know what the best possible use of said charitable dollar might be is difficult, but if we assume that you want to donate money to an institution located in the United States of America that engaged in undergraduate education then it’s easy to think up some rules of thumb.

The main things I’d be looking for are a college that admits a substantial number of low-income people, that does an unusually good job of helping those kids learn relative to peer institutions, and that is interested in using additional financial resources to expand the number of students it educates. As noted previously, Harvard actually does better than other Ivy League schools on this score so the administration can pat itself on the bat for that. But it still does way worse than lots of other options.