Hillary Clinton’s Speaking Fees And The Colleges That Are Paying Them

The Washington Post carried an interesting article yesterday about the enormous fees that colleges are paying for the privilege of hearing a speech from Hillary Clinton.

UCLA paid Mrs. Clinton $300,000 — $300,000 — for a speech in March.  (According to the Post, UCLA also paid Bill Clinton $250,000 for a speech in 2012.)  The University of Connecticut paid $251,250 for a speech from Mrs. Clinton in April, and the University of Nevada at Las Vegas is set to pay $225,000 for a speech in October.  Five other schools — the University at Buffalo, Colgate University, and Hamilton College in New York, Simmons College in Massachusetts, and the University of Miami in Florida — also have paid for speeches from Mrs. Clinton but have not disclosed the amounts of the payments.  The Post article helpfully notes, however, that her standard speaking fee is $200,000.

This is no surprise from the Clinton standpoint.  Hillary Clinton’s ill-advised “dead broke” comments were made in the context of attempting to explain why the Clintons needed to amass a considerable personal fortune, estimated to exceed $100 million, in the 14 years since President Clinton left office.  To the extent she is keeping some of the fees for herself — at least two of the big payments, from UCLA and UNLV, apparently are dedicated to the Clinton Foundation — Hillary Clinton may simply feel she needs to further add to that wealth.  Or, she may be gearing up for another presidential run and want to add to her personal campaign war chest.  Or, she may think she is a hugely important historical and cultural figure who reasonably should be paid outlandish fees to speak at college events.  Either way, if colleges are willing to throw hundreds of thousands of dollars her way for a speech, who is she to say no?

What about the colleges, though?  Seven of the eight said Mrs. Clinton’s fees were paid by a lecture series endowment or private donations and not through tuition, student fees or public dollars; at UNLV she will be headlining a glittering fundraising event at the Bellagio Casino where school trustees hope her “star power” will boost donations.  There’s no doubt that private underwriting is better than using endowment or tuition dollars to pay Mrs. Clinton’s high fees, but there’s still something unseemly about it all.  When we constantly hear about the problem of crushing student debt and annual tuition hikes, how can colleges be affiliated with events where any speaker is paid hundreds of thousands of dollars?  Has Hillary Clinton suddenly vaulted into the pantheon of compelling public speakers next to Lincoln and Churchill?  Or, is it possible that at least part of the decision to agree to pay such amounts to Hillary Clinton was motivated by a desire to curry favor with a person who many think is likely to be the next President of the United States?

The ability of political figures to take a break from public office and immediately be showered with money from colleges and public corporations alike is a deeply troubling reality in modern America.  The willingness of colleges to pay a current political figure like Hillary Clinton many multiples of the average annual income of Americans for a single speech, and her willingness to accept such amounts, is just another example.

No Surprise To Parents Of College Students

The College Board reports that, once again, tuition and fee costs at both public and private colleges have increased at a rate faster than inflation.  For private four-year colleges in the United States, costs for the 2009-2010 year increased by an average 4.4 percent.  Average costs for public universities increased by an even larger amount — 6.5 percent.

There seems to be endless elasticity of demand for degrees from elite American colleges.  There undoubtedly are people who would gladly pay $100,000 a year for the privilege of seeing Junior get his sheepskin from Harvard or Yale.  As a result, there is no effective incentive for such schools to really try to control costs.  Why make cuts that will anger faculty and staff when tuition increases can be implemented without meaningful opposition?  Hiking tuition is simply the path of least resistance.

Interestingly, although politicians often talk about how important it is to try to make college affordable, they always do so in the context of government-backed loans to pay the tuitions and related costs set by the educational institutions.  In contrast, they never criticize college administrators for failing to control costs.  Colleges and universities have worked out a pretty sweet deal — they get lots of research funding and grant money from federal and state governments, and those governments then guarantee loans, at favorable interest rates, to help students pay the constantly increasing price tab for tuition and room and board.

Kish and I are now in our fifth year of paying college tuition costs, and the annual tuition increase notices come with the same certain regularity as the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano.  In reality, the ever-increasing cost of a higher education will not be reined in until the law of supply and demand once again comes to apply to the process of getting a college diploma, and that day still appears to be a long way off.