College generic Harvard University

A tour group walks through the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., in 2012.

The start of the new academic year is about two weeks away, but I’ve already saddled up one of my hobby-horses here at this corner of the internet: Individual colleges and universities are vastly different places.

Refusal to acknowledge that reality results in a word salad like this recent op-ed in the New York Times. An in-house columnist uses a new book by a former Yale University law school dean to paint campus unrest across the nation as “a revolt of the mediocre many against the excellent few.” But the same protests that roiled Yale over the past several years seem to have missed all but one of North Carolina's 50-some four-year colleges and universities. The only thing close here, of course, has been the tug of war over Silent Sam at UNC-Chapel Hill, and the protests concerning the now-in-hiding Confederate statue have been confined to one campus. I'd argue that a columnist who sees campus revolutionaries under every rock really hasn’t turned over too many rocks.

That brings me to a new article that shows a wide wealth gap between public universities and explores why it exists. Kevin McClure, an associate professor of higher education at UNC-Wilmington, presents a good, short primer on university fundraising and what the money is used for. Here’s the link.

McClure also notes that a few flagship state universities are way ahead of the pack. In North Carolina, for instance, UNC-Chapel Hill had a $2.9 billion endowment as of mid-2017. That’s bigger than the endowments of all of the other UNC System schools combined.

(Here’s more context: UNCG’s endowment stood at $293 million at the end of the 2017-18 fiscal year, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers, and N.C. A&T’s was close to $64 million; UNC-CH, meanwhile, had a great financial year. By mid-218, its endowment had grown by more than $400 million — which is more than the combined total values of A&T’s and UNCG’s endowments.)

More money means a school can do more: more scholarships, more professors (and higher salaries), more buildings, more amenities. And so on.

So why did these gaps open like they did? Here’s McClure:

One reason for the differences, I’ve found, is structural. Big, prominent public universities are more likely than smaller higher ed institutions to have medical and law schools. The doctors and lawyers who graduate from them, in turn, earn large incomes and are more able to make big donations to their alma maters.

The public universities lacking law and medical schools often educate high numbers of low-income students, including many people who are the first in their families to go to college. This means that there is less wealth to tap among students, parents and alumni. …

Another explanation is historic. The public universities with the biggest endowments typically began fundraising earlier on. This head start has given them an edge for years and today is making it easier for them to employ more fundraising staff to spot and cultivate potential big donors.

Speaking of structural and historical differences, WealthX, a firm that helps higher ed and other industries track down rich people, late last month published its 2019 U.S. and world college alumni rankings. Not surprisingly, the school with the most ultra-high net worth graduates — alums with a net worth north of $30 million — is Harvard University, the nation's oldest school. WealthX says it has identified more than 1,800 ultra-wealthy alums with a combined net worth of nearly $1.9 trillion-with-a-T From those numbers, WealthX estimates that Harvard really has 13,650 super-rich alums who are worth nearly $4.8 trillion. 

No. 2 Stanford University has half as many rich alums with half as much net worth. By the time you get to No. 20 on the U.S. rankings (Boston University), you're down to an estimated 1,640 rich alums who have only (only!) $277 billion in stocks, bonds, cash, homes real estate, yachts and museum-quality art.

The WealthX report shows a clear gap between private and public universities — only five of the top 20 are state schools. (The five public universities on the list are Berkeley, Texas, Michigan, UCLA and Virginia.) Though the WealthX list goes only 20 deep, it’s easy to imagine that the vast majority of colleges and universities have just a literal handful, if that, of super-wealthy folks who show up at homecoming. The wealth gap is real, in other words, and none of it's trickling down.

This MarketWatch story gives you an easy peek at the full WealthX report. You can download the report (it's free, but you have to hand over your email address) here

Have something to say about the blog post above? Email me at john.newsom@greensboro.com. You can also follow me on Twitter at @JohnNewsomNR.

Support my coverage of higher education. Click here to learn about digital subscriptions to www.greensboro.com.