How Rich Colleges Like Harvard And Princeton Can Afford To Ignore The Supreme Court’s Affirmative Action Ruling

The Supreme Court outlawed affirmative action in college admissions in June, but many elite super-wealthy schools wouldn’t have to comply if they simply refused federal funds.

The Supreme Court’s decision to ban affirmative action in college admissions on June 29 has been met with widespread disapproval from elite college presidents. Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber expressed his disappointment, stating that the court’s opinion would make it more challenging to sustain and improve the diversity of the school’s student body. Similarly, Yale president Peter Salovey conveyed deep concern in his statement. Other prestigious institutions like Amherst, Williams, and Pomona, as well as Ivy League schools, echoed these sentiments.

A Potential Solution: Rejecting Government Funding

Despite the concerns surrounding the court’s decision, there is a straightforward approach for institutions to maintain their autonomy in shaping incoming freshman classes based on race, as they have done in the past: Refuse to accept government funding. The Supreme Court’s jurisdiction is limited to colleges that receive federal funds, so institutions that opt out of such aid can protect their existing admissions practices without fear of repercussions.

Legal Perspectives on College Independence

According to Osamudia James, a civil rights and discrimination law expert and professor at the UNC School of Law, it may be possible for colleges to insulate themselves from public money and be considered private entities, not subject to the court’s rulings on public accommodations.

Feasibility of Wealthy Colleges Refusing Federal Funds

While some higher education experts view the idea of colleges rejecting federal funding as unrealistic, the fact remains that many of the nation’s wealthiest colleges possess substantial endowments, enabling them to forgo the relatively small amount of federal money they receive annually. In 2021, 17 of the 50 richest schools by endowment per student received less than 1% of their total endowment assets in federal funding. Additionally, 38 of these affluent schools received less than 2.5% in federal funds.

How Federal Funding Supports Colleges

Federal funding serves various purposes in colleges. It provides research grants to faculty from federal agencies, offers Pell Grants to students for financial aid, and includes Stafford loans, which are federal student loans that can be subsidized or unsubsidized. The Federal Work-Study Program also furnishes funds for part-time student employment.

Comparing Federal Support and College Endowments

For some colleges, the federal funding they receive pales in comparison to the returns they generate from their considerable endowments. For instance, prestigious liberal arts colleges like Amherst and Pomona have endowments of over $3 billion, equivalent to roughly $2 million per full-time student. In 2021, these colleges received less than $10 million each in federal funding, making up just 0.26% of their endowments.

Harvard and Yale, with their extensive graduate research programs and top medical schools, received close to $800 million in federal funding each. However, these amounts represent only a small fraction of their endowments, accounting for 1.4% of Harvard’s $53.2 billion endowment and 1.9% of Yale’s $42.3 billion endowment.

Princeton, which boasts the highest endowment assets per student among all colleges at $4.7 million, received $218 million in federal funds, comprising 0.6% of its $37 billion endowment. Given Princeton’s history of strong returns, many argue that the institution could forsake federal aid and still support a diverse student body effectively.

In conclusion, despite the discontent among college presidents over the affirmative action ban, there is a potential avenue for colleges to retain their autonomy in admissions policies by rejecting federal funding. While some consider this idea impractical, numerous wealthy colleges have the financial capacity to forgo federal aid and continue supporting diversity initiatives through their substantial endowments.

Princeton University $4,701,173 $37,026 $218.1 0.59%
Yale University $2,854,828 $42,283 $790.5 1.87%
Massachusetts Institute of Technology $2,471,494 $27,394 $1,605.5 5.86%
Stanford University $2,310,356 $37,788 $939.5 2.49%
Amherst College $2,132,855 $3,775 $9.9 0.26%
Harvard University $2,001,271 $53,166 $758.2 1.43%
Grinnell College $1,994,252 $2,932 $8.5 0.29%
Pomona College $1,981,337 $3,031 $7.8 0.26%
Swarthmore College $1,920,074 $2,899 $13.3 0.46%
Williams College $1,849,444 $3,912 $10.8 0.28%
California Institute of Technology $1,799,713 $4,022 $368.0 9.15%
Bowdoin College $1,548,085 $2,718 $10.8 0.40%
University of Notre Dame $1,343,664 $18,385 $192.1 1.04%
Dartmouth College $1,317,216 $8,484 $180.6 2.13%
Wellesley College $1,244,439 $3,237 $15.6 0.48%
Berea College $1,065,910 $1,575 $64.7 4.11%
Washington and Lee University $1,005,005 $2,092 $15.7 0.75%
Claremont McKenna College $989,620 $1,313 $5.2 0.40%
Rice University $978,007 $8,080 $127.7 1.58%
Smith College $916,577 $2,559 $15.8 0.62%
Vanderbilt University $870,798 $10,929 $369.8 3.38%
Washington University in St. Louis $851,223 $13,668 $750.8 5.49%
University of Richmond $850,201 $3,351 $36.2 1.08%
University of Pennsylvania $817,378 $20,524 $1,013.2 4.94%
Emory University $803,122 $12,219 $759.5 6.22%
Duke University $779,875 $12,692 $1,036.3 8.16%
Bryn Mawr College $717,990 $1,183 $16.2 1.37%
Brown University $698,840 $6,520 $252.1 3.87%
Hamilton College $685,212 $1,412 $12.8 0.91%
Davidson College $661,106 $1,341 $10.5 0.79%
Trinity University $649,493 $1,725 $17.2 0.99%
Hillsdale College $620,470 $949 $0.0 0.00%
Carleton College $618,250 $1,158 $14.6 1.26%
Whitman College $607,623 $840 $12.4 1.48%
Berry College $578,927 $1,213 $19.0 1.57%
University of Chicago $575,444 $9,595 $580.1 6.05%
Vassar College $567,718 $1,379 $21.5 1.56%
Scripps College $552,721 $540 $4.0 0.74%
Reed College $551,472 $747 $8.9 1.19%
Northwestern University $536,462 $11,361 $864.5 7.61%
Denison University $526,405 $1,213 $21.1 1.73%
Colby College $508,177 $1,258 $15.7 1.25%
Columbia University in the City of New York $504,659 $14,350 $1,396.3 9.73%
Wesleyan University $487,105 $1,670 $23.2 1.39%
Mount Holyoke College $485,036 $1,068 $16.9 1.59%
Haverford College $457,876 $641 $8.5 1.33%
Middlebury College $457,105 $1,511 $30.7 2.03%
DePauw University $444,129 $802 $12.7 1.58%
Oberlin College $436,275 $1,349 $13.4 0.99%
Colorado College $416,615 $909 $11.4 1.26%


While a select few wealthy colleges may have the capacity to reject federal funding, it would be a risky move especially if their alumni don’t see diversity as an important mission. Celebrating limited government has always been a hallmark of the political right, of course, while liberal arts schools with more left-leaning faculties and student bodies often consider federal aid an entitlement. But with progressives rapidly becoming disenchanted with the current politics of the Supreme Court, all it takes might be one liberal billionaire donor to take a stand in the other direction.

“It would be hard to grow your way out of taking federal funding quickly,” says Jim Hundrieser, vice president for consulting and business development at NACUBO, an organization that has college CFOs as its members, “unless you have a mega-donor say diversity is more important than anything else, so therefore I’m going to give you another $100 million, and that will be your bridge process to get out of the [federal] financial aid business.”

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