James B. Twitchell writes,

At the turn of the 20th century, one percent of high school graduates attended college; that figure is now close to 70 percent. This is an industry that produces a yearly revenue flow more than six times the revenue generated by the steel industry…

Americans donate more money to higher education than to any other cause except religion…

American colleges and universities raise about $25 billion a year from private sources. Public universities are new to this game, but they’ve learned that it’s where the action is. Private dollars now account for about 30 percent of the University of Illinois’ annual budget, about 20 percent of Berkeley’s, and about 10 percent of Florida’s. In a sense, tuition-paying undergrads are now the loss leaders in the enterprise…

schools like mine have four basic revenue streams: student tuition, research funding, public (state) support, and private giving. The least important is tuition; the most prestigious is external research dollars; the most fickle is state support; and the most remunerative is what passes through the development office.

Read the entire article, which is a wonderful blend of facts and rant.

I will add that on Friday I went to my alma mater, Swarthmore College, to attend a memorial service for Bernard Saffran. I allowed time for traffic, so I arrived on campus almost an hour early. I was struck by the large number of new buildings. It made me think that Swarthmore is the most over-capitalized entity in the country.

It was a bitter January day, so I went into the library to escape the cold. The few students who were there were working on computers, either the library’s or their own laptops.

I then wandered to the “honors reserve” section of the library, where books for junior and senior seminars are kept. They seemed rather old and threadbare. I pulled a few off the shelf, and I did not find any with a copyright date after 1992. The economics books were not classics, just books from the 1960’s through the 1980’s, almost all of them forgettable.

I felt a pang of pity for the college, and this pathetic book collection. Then I turned around, once again seeing the fancy computers, and remembered the new buildings. It struck me that in 20 minutes of walking around the campus and 20 minutes in the library, I had seen more buildings that had been built than books that had been purchased in the past 15 years. Poverty amid plenty.

For Discussion. Why do Americans give such a large share of their charity dollars to colleges and universities?