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Sorry, Stanford

Marketplace Staff Mar 23, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: Colleges and universities are hitting up alumni this month for donations. They’re trying to capitalize on enthusiasm for college days that usually comes along with reunion season later this spring or summer.Schools use those contributions for everything from new science labs to tuition assistance. But commentator and Stanford graduate Joel Stein says his alma mater shouldn’t expect a check from him.

JOEL STEIN: Stanford is always just asking for money — which I find odd, since I already paid them a lot. My latest letter says the school is trying to raise $4.3 billion by 2011 as part of the Stanford Challenge.

These are challenging people who aren’t afraid to ask for challenging donations from people who still haven’t paid off their student loans.

For those of you who have never been to the 8,000-acre Stanford campus, it’s very dissimilar to most places begging for charity. Darfur, for instance, doesn’t have its own new rubgy stadium. AIDS hospitals rarely have as many tennis courts.

Stanford, which raised nearly $1 billion in donations just last year — a record for a university — has an endowment of more than $14 billion. That’s more than the Gross Domestic Product of Belize or Sierra Leone — which has diamonds.

New buildings pop up at Stanford like weeds. Weeds with names like Packard and Gates. The just-renovated basketball arena has no advertising at all inside, because a rich guy found them aesthetically displeasing. So he simply bought them all.

Stanford could stop charging undergrads the $43,361 for tuition, room and board and call it an accounting error on its interest. It makes more sense for Rupert Murdoch to ask me for charity money. At least I still use his products.

I understand that rich people like to give money to organizations that make them look good. They want a powerful alma mater, a nice opera house, a buoyant Venice and a tidy stretch of road for Bette Midler to drive on. But they shouldn’t be able to write these donations off as tax-deductible charities.

Time Inc. will match my donations to Stanford, but not to actual educational charities. That’s despite the fact that only 3 percent of students at the top colleges come from families in the bottom economic quartile. Which is slightly higher than the percentage that write for Time Inc. magazines.

So save your stamps, Stanford. I’m not giving you any money. Not unless I wind up a millionaire and have kids with borderline SAT scores.

RYSSDAL: Joel Stein is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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