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Stanford fundraising: Eternally feeding the beast

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[Edit, 2/23/16: And Phil Knight donates $400 million as the centerpiece of the $750 million Knight-Hennessy Scholars Program. Excellent timing. A more excellent gift.]

 

So Stanford just raised $1.6 billion.

That amount of money is so large that it’s actually difficult to even comprehend. It is, by far, the biggest one-year fundraising haul in American history. It is the sort of money that changes lives, shapes communities and, in the right places, can change the course of history. It is a windfall that, in the midst of Bernie Sanders’ campaign to lower undergraduate student debt, almost immediately raises the question of how Stanford can justify getting this much money. Just 20 schools took in 30 percent of all donations made to the entire higher education industry last year. That’s a rather shocking sum.

But to be fair, it’s not really $1.6 billion — at least not in the way you’d imagine. The big-ticket item is the $600 million in art, for example, which Stanford’s not likely to sell anytime soon — and in any case, it likely wouldn’t have received that art in the first place if it had planned to flip it for cash. And almost all the rest of this money has already been earmarked for specific projects: Stanford goes to extraordinary lengths to make sure that donors can see what Stanford will do with their money before they actually sign the check. A good chunk of it is, in fact, going to financial aid. But the numbers don’t necessarily tell the entire tale.

Most importantly to many students, $1.6 billion isn’t going to translate into lower tuition. Stanford’s led the country in fundraising for the better part of a decade, but tuition hasn’t gone down during that time — and this money won’t stop it now. I argue that in fact, Stanford is an institution that is systemically wired at its very core to push to spend more, pay more and cost more.

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There is more to Stanford University than its undergraduates. $1.6 billion would pay for 1,375 full rides per year (at Stanford’s endowment withdrawal rate of 5.5 percent a year), but making Stanford cheaper isn’t the University’s top priority. It’s already as accessible as any of its peers. I’d suggest, in fact, that as costs increase, Stanford is already being forced to make substantial investments every year in order to keep up existing levels of financial aid.

The real problem is that at Stanford, costs are simply rising faster than Stanford’s core aid revenues. Let’s use sticker price as a temporary stand-in for true cost of attendance. Ten years ago, the price of an undergraduate year at Stanford was $47,000. It’s now over $64,000. Ten years ago, Stanford’s endowment was $18 billion. Today it’s about $22 billion.In other words, the cost of education isn’t just rising faster than inflation: It’s even rising faster than Stanford’s endowment.

And let’s not forget: The quoted cost of attendance doesn’t come close to the true amount of money Stanford already spends on its students. Indeed, there’s an element of price discrimination to Stanford’s skyrocketing sticker price — raising tuition ultimately means that there will be rich people paying something closer to the true cost of attendance to help subsidize the costs for the less fortunate. (Eat your heart out, Bernie!) But even if Stanford’s simply raising the sticker price faster than actual costs, costs would still have to rise a lot more slowly in order to be sustainable with the resources Stanford currently has.

Translating arithmetic to English: Stanford’s going to have to find a way to finance the annual shortfall that its rising costs are imposing on its budget. Maybe, with evident but not extraordinarily egregious hyperbole, Stanford doesn’t just want to raise money — it needs to raise mind-blowing amounts of money.

Which is exactly what it’s doing.

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To understand how Stanford raises so much money and why it’s gotten to the point where it needs to do that, we need look no further than the University’s outgoing president, John Hennessy.

Hennessy will leave Stanford with a very real legacy. The University has been rising in reputation for many decades, and Hennessy’s work has truly entrenched Stanford as one of the best schools in the world. I’ve admired what he’s done administratively. I love that, like many of the presidents that have come before him, he’s truly set the tone for the University’s vision: to become the most powerful force in American higher education. And of course, he is the greatest fundraiser that the American education system has ever seen.

In the last 33 years, the fundraising charts have led with either Stanford or Harvard 32 times. Harvard’s ability speaks for itself: Harvard has, after all, been great for longer than Stanford has even existed. For Hennessy to not only equal Harvard’s prowess but, in the last decade, convincingly surpass it, is a staggering achievement. The last time a non-Stanford/Harvard school led the fundraising tables was 2002.

Hennessy’s impact is everywhere, and (for those of you who are upset by the constant construction) very easy to see.

The real challenge for Stanford in the coming years is financing research during a time when federal research funding is likely to decrease. Stanford initially rose to national prominence on the back of staggering amounts of research dollars raised to fight the Cold War. But what happens when that money starts drying up? That’s not a question I can answer, but that’s a question incoming president Marc Tessier-Lavigne (a “record-setting” fundraiser at Rockefeller University)  must be able to answer.

The building campaigns may be coming to a close. Hennessy may be retiring, trailing clouds of glory. But at the end of the day, it still comes back to money.

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The most straightforward solution to spiraling tuition, readers may have noticed, is to keep Stanford’s costs down. Figure out how to spend less, and you won’t demand more. But frankly, Stanford’s vision is one in which costs will only increase. Stanford used to be free — that was the point of it existing, in fact. We were the Cooper Union of the West. We decided we wanted to be something different instead.

President Hennessy is willing to retire now in part because he’s almost completely done with his plans to renew the campus. Stanford has 21st-century facilities now, while many of its peers are struggling to catch up. But the Board of Trustees will appoint a successor that will, one imagines, share the vision that Hennessy and so many others have followed. In the coming years and decades and centuries, there will always be more things to build, more Ph.D students to fund, more research to conduct, more professors to hire, more worlds to explore.

This philosophy extends to undergraduates as well: There will always be new programming, new dorms, new academic support initiatives, new staff, new teachers. Let’s not kid ourselves: Research will likely, but not necessarily certainly, increase, because there will likely be new donors to fuel the Stanford machine. Undergraduate tuition, on the other hand, is always going to increase, because there will always be rich people willing to pay sticker price. Stanford does not stop. This is not a story that has an end. And if you believe in the vision that Stanford’s been sticking to for generations, it’s not a story that you’d ever want to bring to a close.

 

Contact Winston Shi at wash94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He is currently attending law school, where he preaches the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't.