As you sail into the last days of being a student, you’ll likely be blindsided by how expensive your cap and gown are — but you’ll rarely consider the cost of commencement speakers around the country.
As you resist the urge to hurl your cap into the air, you’ll likely sit through a motivational speech delivered by a high-profile person. These commencement speeches traditionally are pretty standard fare, as they’re the centerpiece of the pageantry at your final hurrah as a student.
Institutions of higher learning love a star-studded graduation because they bring media attention and often entice alumni to donate more money to their alma mater. In all fairness, speakers are often brought to campus at the behest of students, alumni, or trustees who put administrators under pressure to increase the school’s perceived prestige.
Unfortunately, as we’ve learned over the years, celebrity speeches are regularly exorbitantly expensive, and colleges and universities have gotten themselves in hot water for paying outrageous sums to celebrities such as Jeff Foxworthy (more than $100,000) and Matthew McConaughey ($135,000).
While we know that McConaughey donated his substantial sum to charity, the University of Houston still shelled out that outrageous figure, which didn’t include travel expenses. In the end, McConaughey gave what’s perhaps one of the most confusing graduation speeches of all time.
The guy famous for saying alright several times in a row isn’t alone, as having famous people give graduation speeches often cost institutions well over six figures. Politicians and journalists command enormous fees as well, such as Rudy Giuliani ($75,000) and Katie Couric ($110,000, donated to charity).
There are many other commencement speaker fees over the years that have raised eyebrows, including paying more than $200,000 to have Dr. Phil McGraw and Jerry Seinfeld headline graduation ceremonies.
The commencement speaker circuit
Only about 30 percent of colleges actually pay for commencement speakers. Funny enough, Ivy League universities and other high-end wealthy institutions rarely pay for speakers. For nearly anyone, if you get invited to speak at Harvard or Stanford, you’ll likely accept the opportunity as an honor.
More run-of-the-mill schools often need to entice keynote speakers with monetary rewards, hence the large sums that we see going to these already ultra-wealthy individuals to speak for about 20 minutes.
Surprisingly, even if these stars don’t collect a speaking fee, they’re customarily reimbursed for their travel cost — and those can add up quickly. There can also be additional logistical expenses, especially if an extremely high-profile person gives a commencement speech.
For instance, when then-First Lady Michelle Obama spoke at the University of California-Merced, costs increased by $600,000 for graduation, $300,000 of which went to accommodate the throngs of people who flocked to see her through a live transmission feed.
Enough is enough
Because the average undergrad walks across the stage with almost $40,000 in debt, many believe it’s unconscionable that schools spend these amounts to lure commencement speakers.
Many institutions, especially public ones, under fire for their spendthrift behavior, often claim that private donors cover the cost of these speakers. Last year, President Barack Obama confidant Valerie Jarrett will address Northeastern Illinois University’s commencement for a reported $30,000. The school, which is facing a budget crisis, signed Jarrett anyway. Fortunately, a private donor emerged and will foot the bill.
Reeling it in
To avoid this ethical quagmire, some schools such as Bradley University in Illinois have just gotten rid of commencement speeches entirely.
To keep universities in check, politicians are also springing into action. Over in New Jersey, lawmakers unanimously passed what’s known as the “Snooki bill” that would mandate public colleges in that state observe a $10,000 cap for speakers. This comes years after Snooki (remember the Italo-beach bum made famous by Jersey Shore) was paid $32,000 to give a speech at Rutgers.
Critics say there will still be ways to get around this law, as schools will still be able to use money that isn’t subject to government regulation. In sum, Snooki could still get paid more than $30,000 to come on campus and give a speech about you know, tanning and stuff.
Takeaway: Higher education reform needed
Colleges and universities have become bloated bureaucracies and have lost sight of their purpose — to educate students. A high-flying commencement speaker isn’t going to change the sad reality that many of their students are graduating straddled with loads of unnecessary debt.
We need to hold our alma maters accountable. Ditch the fancy commencement speaker and stop raising tuition instead.
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