michael bloomberg Ramin Talaie/Corbis via Getty Images

Too Much Gratitude?

Many people give from gratitude, not only to the universities they attended, but also to their primary and secondary schools, and to hospitals that treated them when they were ill. But grateful giving doesn't necessarily do the most good.

PRINCETON – Last November, Michael Bloomberg made what may well be the largest private donation to higher education in modern times: $1.8 billion to enable his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, to provide scholarships for eligible students unable to afford the school’s tuition. Bloomberg is grateful to Johns Hopkins, he explains, because the opportunity to study there, on a scholarship, “opened up doors that otherwise would have been closed, and allowed me to live the American dream.” In the year after he graduated, he donated $5 to the school, all he could afford. Thanks to the success of Bloomberg L.P., the international financial-information company he founded in 1981, he has now given a total of $3.3 billion.

Many people give from gratitude, not only to the universities they attended, but also to their primary and secondary schools, and to hospitals that treated them when they were ill. These apparently laudable reasons for giving are in tension with the idea, popularized by the “effective altruism” movement, that we should do the most good we can. Bloomberg seems aware of this way of thinking, for he offers another reason for his most recent gift: “no qualified high school student should ever be barred entrance to a college based on his or her family’s bank account.”

In the United States, in contrast to other affluent countries, students are often unable to go to the colleges and universities of their choice because they cannot afford the high fees charged. Student loans may be available, but they will have to be repaid after graduating. Bloomberg’s gift adds one more university to the handful (including Princeton University, my employer) where those without the means to pay will have their tuition and living expenses fully covered.

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