Barack Obama spent some of his very important time this week telling school children they should shoot for the stars and aim for grade-A educations. Sadly, our president was wrong, because America's institutions of higher learning are dead broke!!
Yes, we Americans — and, in fact, all Western dwellers — are taught that we should aim for schools like Harvard, Yale, Brown and, if you must, Vassar. Yet, in a sad testament to our nation's increasingly depressing economic situation, all four of those schools are losing their economic prestige.
Harvard announced today that their endowment amounts to a paltry $26 billion, which is down 30% since last year. Yale also faces a 30% decline: their endowment fell from $23 billion to $17 billion. Brown's also suffering with an endowment that's 27% less than this time last year. Meanwhile, the president of that school's former love, Vassar, sent out a letter to graduates, including this editor, announcing that the storied institution — Jackie O went there!! — has lost nearly the same percentage of its precious, precious piggy bank.
Of course, the schools are trying to put on a happy face. Jane Mendillo, CEO of the Harvard Management Company, insisted that the school's maintaining its fiduciary poise:
In navigating the past year's storm, we developed greater financial flexibility, strengthened our investment team, sharpened out focus and positioned both HMC and the endowment to be robust, steady and, importantly, poised to benefit from growth in the world's economies.
Um, really? We weren't economics majors, but last time we checked, there's no real growth in the world's economies. But, way to teach us a lesson in positive thinking!
So, what does this all mean? On the surface it means that these schools — and others — need to tighten their fashionable belts. On a deeper level, it means that Harvard et al. are fast on their way to losing their elitist charm and becoming poor pedestrian schmucks like the rest of us. And, honestly, it serves them right. Well, Harvard, at least. As Vanity Fair pointed out last month, the school embarked on a wildly excessive expansion plan, one that left them in the whole financially and embarrassed generally.
Rather than revamping dorms and building new graduate campuses, these schools should have been focusing on improving preexisting services, like teaching. (The Vassar president's letter encouraged students to visit a newly redecorated dorm, then discussed how staff needed to be cut. Silly!) The downfall of the nation's premiere schools serves as an indictment, this writer thinks, of the nation's irrepressible desire to link public image with private spending.
But, sadly, we need these schools to make sure our nation's children can compete with international competitors and save us from an even sadder, more pathetic future. Hey, did anyone here read Catch-22? This is kind of like that. Kind of.