Back in the summer of 2017, my son Danny’s girlfriend was at our home and we found ourselves once again talking about the college application process.  It was the summer before Danny’s freshman year at the University of Michigan and Serena, a rising senior at the city’s prestigious Central High School, was contemplating where to apply to college. Serena was a strong student in high school (enrolled in the International Baccalaureate Program with mostly A grades), the captain of two varsity sports, and a capable test taker. As we were reviewing her options, I remember clearly that she dismissed applying to the University of Pennsylvania because of her belief that its high tuition would be impossible to manage. 

Serena, like so many other first generation college students, had no idea of the options that were available to her. Having worked in the local college access field for nearly 20 years, I understood that Penn has a need blind admissions policy. “Apply”, I said. I knew that if admitted, the University would meet all unmet need. Based on this conversation and many others like it, Serena cautiously applied to Penn’s nursing school, was admitted early decision, and now has an annual tuition bill of approximately $5,000. She does not need to take out any student loans and will graduate from one of the finest universities in the world with a nursing degree, debt-free.

I share this story in light of the announcement last week that Michael Bloomberg has made the single largest gift to an American university in the history of philanthropy. His $1.8 billion gift to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins, was a big step up from his first gift of $5 just one year after graduation. He was clearly motivated by his desire to give back to the school that gave him opportunity and propelled him to live his version of the American dream. In that spirit of giving back, I am blown away by the size of his gift; his intention to level the playing field at Johns Hopkins for first generation, low-income students; and his belief that a meritocracy is possible only when opportunities to participate and compete are not artificially limited by financial capabilities. Students, after all, should be admitted on merit, and not their ability to pay the steep tuition bill that usually accompanies a four-year college degree.

The largesse of his gift will ensure that Johns Hopkins will be in the financial position to offer need-blind admission forever.  The gift will ease the burden of debt for countless students and has the intention of making the campus more socioeconomically diverse. My hope is that this single, large act of generosity will raise awareness of the available opportunities for students who may not otherwise pursue admission to top-flight universities because of the limited financial resources of their respective families. A degree from a selective university will open doors to future job opportunities, higher degrees, a valuable professional network, and a ticket to the middle class and beyond.

Additional focus must be given to supporting these students once they have crossed the threshold of admission into selective universities. The cost of tuition is only the first barrier of many for first generation, low-income students as they enter a whole new world. There are many academic, social, and personal transition needs for students as they navigate college, life away from home, and other interactions for which they may be underprepared. The focus upon entry must indeed be on college completion and making sure that these new students are prepared with the tools that they need for success.

Michael Bloomberg’s philanthropy is bold and impactful – first to the students who will benefit directly through scholarships, second to Johns Hopkins who can attract more qualified students from diverse backgrounds, and thirdly, as an inspiration to others with like-minded intentions to contribute in similar ways, even if at dramatically smaller amounts. By stepping up, investing in his alma mater and the future of many yet to be identified students, he is promoting philanthropic engagement and social impact.

Could the $1.8 billion be better spent and more impactful elsewhere?  Sure. Many arguments could be made toward giving to different and needier institutions or causes with a broader reach. But philanthropy is personal. This is not a one-size fits all endeavor. Philanthropists need to understand what motivates them, what matters to them, scan the environment for what’s needed, know the gaps, do their homework, and make their investments. Philanthropy does not happen by siting on the sidelines waiting until all the conditions are just right. Start small, ask questions, refine your thinking and your giving, and keep investing in the causes that are important to you.  Michael Bloomberg has successfully aligned the personal motivations of supporting his alma mater, with his philosophical view of what a more pure meritocracy entails, as undergirded by the values of access and equity that he possesses.

I applaud Michael Bloomberg for his $1.8 billion gift. He has joined the Giving Pledge with a promise to give away the bulk of his wealth, valued at more than $49 billion. In 2017, Bloomberg Philanthropies invested $702 million in 480 cities in more than 120 countries. Michael Bloomberg has invested $6 billion in his philanthropic efforts to date. While $1.8 billion is significant by any measure, this gift has not depleted his philanthropic resources and I expect that Bloomberg Philanthropies will continue to move the needle in its five issue areas (arts, education, the environment, government innovation and public health) for years to come.

In his own words, “The reality of great wealth is that you can’t spend it and you can’t take it with you. For decades, I’ve been committed to giving away the vast majority of my wealth to causes that I’m passionate about—and that my children are passionate about.

Giving also allows the donor to leave a legacy that many others will remember. Rockefeller, Carnegie, Frick, Vanderbilt, Stanford, Duke—we remember them more for the long-term effects of their philanthropy than for the companies they founded, or for their descendants. And by giving, we inspire others to give of themselves, whether their money or their time.” 

Using one’s time, talent, treasure and ties to benefit others, whether it’s $180 or $1.8 billion, that’s philanthropy.