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Good morning. Today, we focus on the back story behind this week’s huge philanthropic gifts.
Alcorn State University, Santa Fe College and West Kentucky Community and Technical College are all working-class colleges. Most of their students are lower-income, and many are trying to become the first member of their family to earn a college degree.
If you spend time on any of these campuses, you are likely to come away feeling inspired. The students have often endured hardship — like a dysfunctional high school, an abusive relationship or wartime military service — and figured out how to keep going.
You may also notice something else: The colleges trying to educate these students are doing so on a shoestring budget.
West Kentucky spends $7,200 annually per student on education — money that needs to cover the salaries of professors and support staff, as well as labs and other educational resources. Alcorn State (in Mississippi) and Santa Fe (in Florida) each spend less than $14,000. So does Borough of Manhattan Community College, in New York.
Want to guess how much money Ivy League colleges spend on education per student each year? About $100,000 on average, according to a report by Third Way. Elite public universities often spend more than $30,000.
These funding gaps exacerbate both economic and racial inequality. “The dollars don’t go to the people who truly need it,” Jeff Strohl, of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, told me. Without enough resources, working-class colleges tend to have low graduation rates. Many of their students struggle to find good-paying jobs and to repay their college loans.
As inspiring as the students at a place like Alcorn State may be, they can’t overcome every obstacle put in their path.
This week, the philanthropist MacKenzie Scott — who helped shape Amazon, during the years she was married to Jeff Bezos — announced that she had given away more than $4 billion, mostly to organizations focused on economic hardship. “This pandemic has been a wrecking ball in the lives of Americans already struggling,” Scott wrote on Medium.
Scott’s 384 recipients included 36 colleges, all with large numbers of lower-income students. The four colleges I mentioned above are on the list. In some cases, the gifts are the largest that the colleges have received.
“I was stunned,” Ruth Simmons, the president of Prairie View A&M, a historically Black university in Texas, told my colleague Anemona Hartocollis. When Simmons heard in a phone call that the gift would be $50 million, she wasn’t sure she had heard correctly. The caller had to clarify: “five-zero.”
Higher education experts are praising Scott for giving money to the colleges that need it the most, rather than to colleges that already have the most. Strohl called her choice of recipients “brilliant.”
But the experts are also careful to add another point: Scott’s gifts are not nearly large enough to erase the annual funding gaps created by the government. Her donations will make a difference in part because the problem they’re trying to address is so severe. The country’s higher education system often hampers upward mobility.
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Beyond ‘coming out’
Last month, Hulu released one of the first major Christmas movies about a same-sex couple, “Happiest Season.” The movie broke records on the platform and received largely positive reviews from critics. It also reopened a longtime debate about L.G.B.T.Q. representation: Why are queer stories in Hollywood so often about coming out?
In “Happiest Season,” Abby (played by Kristen Stewart) goes to the family home of her girlfriend, Harper (played by Mackenzie Davis), for Christmas. Harper’s family doesn’t know she is gay, and the movie centers on hiding this.
“There are ways to make the coming-out experience feel modern,” Michael Cuby wrote in the online magazine Them. “Throwing Kristen Stewart into a cupboard with a Roomba just so she can be found by someone who winkingly asks, ‘Abby, what are you doing in the closet?’ is certainly not one.”
At the same time, with few mainstream queer movies available, the pressures on such films are large. “I think that no matter what it did, people were going to be disappointed that it wasn’t doing something else,” Lena Wilson, who has written about film and L.G.B.T.Q. issues for The Times, said.
But the situation may slowly be changing. “Happiest Season” is one of at least six holiday movies with gay or lesbian leads this year. As Sarah Kate Ellis, the chief executive of GLAAD, put it, “When you start to see the quantity rise, then you can have various storylines that show the different aspects and agency of the L.G.B.T.Q. community.”
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