What the Bloomberg gift means for Johns Hopkins — and Baltimore

Michael Bloomberg’s gift of $1.8 billion to Johns Hopkins University is not just notable for its size but its purpose. The largest gift to an academic institution in U.S. history, it has been earmarked for a specific use — to provide scholarships to low- and middle-income students who might not be able to afford to attend a school that, when meals and housing are factored in, costs students and their families upwards of $70,000 a year.

The goal is to create what is referred to in higher education as a “need-blind” admission policy, long the ideal of colleges and universities but rarely possible particularly for private schools that lack the benefit of public dollars to underwrite costs. The former New York City mayor’s timing could scarcely have been better. In a nation where the split between haves and have-nots is widening, higher education offers the best opportunity to bridge the gap — but not if the nation’s top institutions are available only to the wealthiest among us.

As a 2017 New York Times study pointed out, 38 of the nation’s top schools have more students from the top 1 percent of earners than they do from the bottom 60 percent. Hopkins, according to the study based on 15-year-old data, ranked 53rd nationally for its 1 percent preference with 11.5 percent from that top bracket compared to 14.5 percent of students from the bottom 60. The top-10 of the 1-percenters included such notables as Kenyon College, Middlebury College and Tufts University, relatively small private schools that are similar in academic standing to Hopkins.

Meanwhile, efforts to improve student diversity on campuses like Hopkins are under attack, most recently by a lawsuit over Harvard University’s admissions policies that claim the school illegally discriminates against Asian applicants by giving preference to other minority groups. That’s not to suggest the school isn’t well represented by Asian students. It is — well above their share of the population. What the lawsuit argues is that admission should be entirely race blind — which is exactly how low-income minority students who don’t have the educational opportunities at the primary and second school level get left behind. The U.S. Supreme Court with Justice Brett Kavanaugh is not expected to be a friend to affirmative action.

Add to the mix the tendency of many schools to reward legacy students, the sons and daughters of alumni, and it’s not hard to see how the problem has been such a disaster when it comes to the ideal of “equal opportunity.” Mr. Bloomberg, a Hopkins graduate himself, bemoans how his own life situation — his father was a bookkeeper earning no more than $6,000 a year, but he qualified for a National Defense student loan and held down a job on campus — is a far more difficult path today. Yet it was that Hopkins degree that “opened up doors that otherwise would have been closed, and allowed me to live the American dream,” he writes.

The 76-year-old Mr. Bloomberg is, of course, a public figure and among the wealthiest individuals in the world with a net worth in the neighborhood of $50 billion. He can afford the donation. He’s already given $1.5 billion to Hopkins over the years for research, teaching and projects like the Bloomberg School of Public Health. A frequent critic of Donald Trump and a noted supporter of gun safety legislation, he’s also seen as a potential presidential contender in 2020, although if the purpose of the Hopkins donation was to curry favor with voters, Mr. Bloomberg might have found more direct uses of the money, as $1.8 billion is not quite double what Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump spent in 2016 — combined.

Finally, it should not escape Baltimoreans, including those who have little to nothing to do with Johns Hopkins, that this is a big boost for a local economy — one badly in need of such assistance. Charm City may not have adequate public transportation with the cancellation of the Red Line, its future as a tech center may be in doubt with the decision to locate Amazon’s HQ2s elsewhere on the East Coast, and record violence continues apace, but as a center for need-blind education? It is now something of a beacon for what is possible, for top-flight education to all and not just the rich, for student diversity, for upward mobility, for rewarding hard work and not just inheritance. And that’s not a bad deal at all.

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