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Opinion The problem with Michael Bloomberg’s massive donation to Johns Hopkins University

Michael Bloomberg, the founder of Bloomberg Philanthropies and the former mayor of New York City. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

While in his final year as mayor of New York City, Michael R. Bloomberg referred to calls to raise taxes on the city’s highest earners “about as dumb a policy as I can think of,” and dinged universal pre-kindergarten — something successor Bill de Blasio made a reality — as “phenomenally expensive,” adding that it’s better to “pick the kids who are most at risk.”

I thought about all that this weekend, when news broke that Bloomberg, a would-be 2020 presidential candidate, is giving $1.8 billion to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore. It is the largest donation ever received by a U.S. institution of higher learning. It will permit the school to admit students regardless of financial need, as well as ensure it can afford to offer them enough in the way of funding that they don’t need to take out federal student loans.

Generous? Absolutely. But helping kids most at risk? Not exactly. Johns Hopkins is an elite institution that admits less than 10 percent of the kids that vied for a spot in its current freshman class. Almost all are in the top ten percent of their class. While one-quarter are either African American or Hispanic, and almost 30 percent are of Asian descent, a mere 12 percent are first-generation college students. Just less than half receive financial aid, which means another half come from families capable of paying the school more than $50,000 in tuition annually. The university’s total undergraduate enrollment is 6,109. The promise of need-blind admissions for this rather small number of young adults, while commendable, doesn’t even qualify as a drop in the bucket when it comes to addressing either college affordability or income and wealth inequality in the United States.

Meanwhile, located about two miles from Bloomberg News’ corporate headquarters is Baruch College, one of the flagship campuses of New York City’s famed public university system, the City University of New York. CUNY consists of 25 schools, including seven community colleges and 11 four-year colleges. Minorities make up more than 75 percent of the system’s student body and a majority come from households in which the annual income is less than $30,000.

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The bang that CUNY offers for the buck is extraordinary. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, CUNY schools hold seven of the top 10 spots in its annual lists of four-year colleges offering the highest chances of social mobility for their low-income students. Baruch College ranks No. 1.

This is where I need to break for two disclosures: My husband graduated from Johns Hopkins. More relevant: my father graduated from Baruch College. He was a first-generation college student who decided to get an education after his daughter — that would be me — was born. There is no doubt my life would have been very different if this option hadn’t been open to him.

CUNY could certainly use and benefit from Bloomberg’s largesse. According to Crain’s New York, over the past decade, the state contributions to CUNY’s budget for its four-year universities have dropped by nearly 20 percent (when adjusted for inflation). During the same period, tuition increased by almost two-thirds. Budget cuts are a constant. Last week, students rallied to beg for funding for academic support programs that helps low-income students pay for everything from textbooks to subway transportation. The infrastructure at the schools is in such a state of deterioration, there is at least one Instagram page devoted to the topic.

At Johns Hopkins, the graduation rate after four years is more than 90 percent. According to a report released earlier this year from the Center for an Urban Future at New York’s New School, only 22 percent of those attending CUNY’s community colleges earning their associate’s degree within a three-year period. Students at the four-year colleges are somewhat more successful: 55 percent succeed in graduating in six years or less.

The problems CUNY students face are legion. Many students graduate from New York City’s high schools ill-equipped academically for college. New York City’s high cost of living defeats many would-be scholars. The much ballyhooed free college tuition for families earning less than $125,000 is helpful, but far from enough. That’s thanks to strict eligibility standards, including excluding students who attend part-time, something that disproportionately impacts students from lower-income families. (It is almost certain Bloomberg is aware of this. When he ran for a third term as mayor, he proposed an initiative to raise graduation rates at the system’s two-year colleges.)

CUNY, of course, is hardly alone. For all the attention paid to the private, elite universities, the vast majority of students enroll in public institutions. Yet state funding of these schools is lower than it was in 2001. When I spoke with Barbara Bowen, a professor of English at CUNY’s Queens College (No. 11 on the Chronicle’s list) and head of Professional Staff Congress, CUNY’s faculty and staff union, she told me that “our students thrive when they when they have the same small classes, and libraries, and attention from professors and other resources” as those at schools such as Johns Hopkins.

Bloomberg, to be fair, called for increased alumni giving at all colleges in his New York Times opinion piece announcing his mega gift, even as he admitted “private donations cannot and should not make up for the lack of government support.” But there is a bigger issue here. The age of inequality has led to an explosion of massive fortunes. One result is a surge in philanthropic giving by the wealthiest of Americans. On the one hand, it’s their money. But on the other, charity, in the words of the Institute for Policy Studies, has become increasingly “top heavy,” dominated by a few multimillionaires and billionaires with their own needs, wants and agendas. Even with the best of intentions, this is hardly a democratic way to decide on a society’s priorities, as two recent books — “The Givers” by David Callahan and “Winners Take All” by Anand Giridharadas — have rightly argued. Philanthropy, which is voluntary, remains no substitute for taxation, which is not.

Here’s the good news. Bloomberg can do more. Forbes puts his net worth at an estimated $51.8 billion. After this donation, it’s still $50 billion. That’s still a lot of dough. Perhaps he can toss another $1.8 billion to CUNY or another public university system. It’s the least he could do. As for the rest of us, perhaps a talk about raising the taxes on society’s millionaires and billionaires is long overdue.