I always buy lottery tickets. Twice a week, I lay down $4 and purchase one MegaMillions and one Powerball. “You gotta be in it to win it,” after all.
I’m a Sucker for the Dream
It’s great fun walking into the gas station shop on Lakeville Road or into the 7-11 by the Stewart Manor train station (the one where young man at the register gives me a bright smile and always says “good luck”). There’s something about that chance, that one in 258.9 million shot, that gives me a bit of a lift.
I have a confession to make: I’m a sucker for the dream. Big dreams find their home in most areas of my life, and the lottery is no exception. I envision an apartment overlooking Central Park (with floor to ceiling windows) or a sprawling home on the beach. I imagine far-away travel, daily deep-tissue massages, and, of course, providing security for our kids for the rest of their lives.
But I also dream of the many ways my lottery winnings could make a difference in the world. I make mental lists of the organizations I’d support in a big way; I read about problems that a bunch of money might help fix—I wonder about all the good a mega jackpot could do.
Earlier this month, we were treated to one such example.
Smith Made a Life-Changing Promise to Morehouse Graduates
On May 19, Robert F. Smith stood in front of parents, students, faculty, and college administrators, as the commencement speaker at Morehouse College—a historically black, all-male college in Atlanta, Georgia. Not even members of Smith’s inner circle had advance knowledge that in his speech Smith would make a huge, life-changing promise to the Morehouse graduates. He promised to pay off all of the 396 graduates’ student loans.
Smith, not a lottery jackpot winner but a billionaire businessman, is the 56-year-old founder of Vista Equity Partners, a company which Forbes called “one of the best-performing private equity firms.” Smith is no stranger to philanthropy. While his current pledge to Morehouse grads will cost him about $40 million, in 2016, Smith pledged $50 million to his own alma mater Cornell University https://www.forbes.com/profile/robert-f-smith/#482578ed2236. He is also one of the most generous donors to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture (second only to Oprah Winfrey).
Should Easing the Burdens of Higher Education Be the Job of Philanthropists?
Smith said this to the commencement audience after he announced his gift: “‘Let’s make sure every class has the same opportunity going forward, because we are enough to take care of our own community … We are enough to ensure we have all of the opportunities of the American dream, and we will show it to each other through our actions and through our words and through our deeds’” https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/19/education/morehouse-college-robert-f-smith.html.
Inspiring words … but do they really ring true? Are “we” enough? Should easing the burdens of higher education for middle class students be the job of philanthropists? And what about those with lesser means, who don’t make it to college, those for whom a college education is nothing more than a lottery pipe dream?
It Will Take Much More Than Individual Donations and Well-Endowed Colleges to Stem Our Student Debt Crisis
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average loan for students who graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in 2015 and 2016 (the most recent federal data available) was $33,200 https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cub.asp. And according to a piece put out by the Editorial Board of the New York Times on May 20, “parents on average incurred another $33,291 in debt” https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/20/opinion/morehouse-college-debt.html. African American students at four-year schools graduate with even larger debt, owing, on average, $7400 more than their white counterparts.
Private institutions and uberwealthy individuals concerned about the state of college costs and loan burdens are stepping in and stepping up. Princeton University, for example, is using some of its endowment monies to help its students graduate loan-free; NYU School of Medicine has announced that it will no longer charge admission—a change made possible largely because of a donation by Kenneth Langone, the founder of Home Depot. Michael Bloomberg recently pledged $1.8 billion to his alma mater Johns Hopkins to help Hopkins students avoid having to secure loans. While these actions are certainly commendable, it will take much more than individual donations and well-endowed colleges to stem our current student debt crisis.
“I Felt a Level of Survivor’s Guilt”
Morehouse graduates were rightly overjoyed after hearing that their student debt will be wiped out. Yet those left behind were still on their minds. “‘I felt a level of survivor’s guilt,’” Myles Washington, one of the lucky graduates told a New York Times reporter. Washington was probably thinking of students like Jordan Long, 22, who was once a member of the 2019 class and would have received the benefits of Smith’s pledge had he remained at Morehouse College. Long completed two years at Morehouse before deciding that the debt he was incurring was just too large to justify his staying on at the school: “‘I didn’t have enough scholarship money and I didn’t want to have to put that kind of a burden on my family.’” There are plenty others like Long.
What about them?
Call Me a Kill-Joy
O.K. I can see some people calling me a kill-joy right about now. And I have to admit that I felt exactly the same way about the journalists who wrote the articles that looked behind and beyond Smith’s wonderful pledge.
Why can’t we just appreciate the goodness of those who do for others? Bask in the inspiration that this “feel-good” story provides?
We can. And we should. Smith is doing a wonderful deed for close to 400 young graduates who will hopefully pay it forward in the future.
Yes. I believe we should honor Smith’s philanthropy. But shouldn’t we also examine the reasons this particular feel-good story exists? Isn’t it possible to be grateful for people like Smith AND realize that there is something amiss in a society where Smith’s generosity is necessary?
How Many of Us Can Claim That Our Own Colleges Plans Wouldn’t Have Changed by the Prospect of Huge Debt?
This issue is close to my heart. The only reason I was able to go away to college and then to graduate school was because I was able to get student loans. And the only reason I considered student loans as a viable option was that college tuition was so much lower when I went to school, which minimized the amount I needed to borrow. The interest rates on the loans I was granted were much lower as well.
My parents did not set up a college fund for me. They worked hard, yet there was never any extra money available at the end of the day. I honestly don’t know what I would have done regarding college had I been faced with the choices kids are faced with today. How many of us can say that our own colleges plans wouldn’t have been changed by the prospect of huge debt?
As I Write This Blog Each Week, I Learn About So Many People Who Are Coming Up with Innovative, Creative Ways to Make Theirs and Others’ Lives Better
Our world needs generous individuals. Individuals who give their money, of course, and who give of their hearts and their time. We need one-on-one connections and commitments to others. AND we individuals, we older women, women of all ages, citizens of this planet—we need to look for broader solutions.
I don’t have the answers. I wish I did. But that doesn’t stop me from trying to learn more, to do more, in all the ways that I can.
I know I am in good company. As I write this blog each week, I learn about so many people who are coming up with innovative, creative ways to make theirs and others’ lives better. That’s what inspires me in these divisive times. That is my feel-good story.
Issac Bailey,* journalist, professor, and author of My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Midst of Crime, Poverty, and Racism in the American South wrote about Smith’s pledge in a CNN opinion piece published on May 20: “we should celebrate what Smith did, not just for those 400 Morehouse students, but for the rest of us. He laid bare how we got here — and how far away we are from righting the ship
What Issues Make You Want to Get Up and Get Active?
Now that the information has been “laid bare,” and we’ve seen one person’s act of generosity, what can those of us whose college days are long gone and who have not—yet—won our mega jackpots do to make a difference for generations to come?
How can we work to heal this issue or any other issue close to our hearts?
(One effective act for change is taking a simple trip to the voting booth.)
As always, I would love to hear your thoughts, your experiences, your “feel good” stories. I’d also love to learn what issues make you want to get up and get active?
When has someone taken a chance on you? Made a difference in your life?
Please leave a comment or send me an email!
One last thought: I wonder, how much better would our planet look if more billionaires were women? (Actually … I think we might just create a more equitable world and make billionaires a thing of the past.)
Have a wonderful week, everyone!
See you next Friday!
*I had the honor and pleasure of interviewing Mr. Bailey about his powerful book for the Lunch Ticket journal—interview will be forthcoming mid-June.