Vice President Joseph Biden, one of the Democratic presidential candidates, this week publicly disclosed his finances. It turns out that he and his spouse are what used to be a relatively rare thing: higher-education millionaires.
That is, in 2018, Biden and his wife Dr. Jill Biden together earned more than $1 million from American colleges and universities. Here, according to Biden’s Office of Government Ethics Form 278e and his 2018 Federal Tax Return, are the details of the haul, in order from largest to smallest:
University of Pennsylvania: $405,368
Drew University: $190,000
Lake Michigan College: $182,679
Vanderbilt University: $180,000
UB Foundation (University of Buffalo): $179,489
Southern Connecticut State University Foundation, Inc.: $124,515
Long Island University: $100,000
Northern Virginia Community College: $94,705 (Jill Biden)
Brown University: $92,642
Foothill-De Anza Community College District: $66,400 (Jill Biden)
Stanford University: $37,853 (Jill Biden)
Loyola University of Chicago: $36,000 (Jill Biden)
Biden and his wife earned about double from higher education sources what Senator Elizabeth Warren and her husband Bruce Mann did in one of the years before she was elected to the Senate, when they were both Harvard Law School professors.
Some of these payments to the Bidens are for professorships, and some are just one-shot lecture appearances.
Doubtless the message that Biden brought to college was something of value, something students and faculty could benefit from. If he stuck to the pattern of his Yale Class Day remarks from 2015 and even of his comments on the campaign trail, he spoke about the importance of not questioning people’s motives, and talked about how he was able to work effectively even with conservatives such as Jesse Helms. “Biden’s conversation with chancellor calls for bipartisanship, optimism” was the way Vanderbilt’s news service covered the story. Drew University’s student newspaper, the Acorn, reported that 3,000 people attended his talk, and that people started lining up two hours in advance.
Biden’s wisdom, such as it is, is readily available on the Internet and in libraries for free, though the same can be said for much of the information conveyed in college lecture halls. Perhaps the same in-person premium that causes students and parents to pay college tuition played a role in drawing the crowds to the campus lectures.
In the context of the more than half-trillion a year that taxpayers, parents, and donors spend on U.S. higher education, $1,689,651 may seem like small change. But with Biden running around New Hampshire proclaiming, as he has been, that “education should be a lot more affordable” and calling for “investing more in post-high-school education,” and denouncing Republican-dominated state legislatures for reducing spending on public colleges and universities, the payments open him up to charges of hypocrisy or even (at the risk of violating Biden’s own good advice about questioning motives) self-dealing. Maybe if these colleges weren’t paying $1,689,651 to the Bidens, they could lower tuition, or would require less taxpayer support, or students wouldn’t have to go so deeply into debt to graduate. A radio ad aired frequently in Massachusetts made an argument along these lines against Senator Warren: “Hypocrite professor Elizabeth Warren: huge salaries for her…rising costs and crushing debt for families and students like you.”
To the extent that colleges have donors who think funding such lectures is a worthy use of philanthropic dollars — terrific. But when Biden and other Democrats start pushing tax increases to subsidize the higher education sector even further, that’s a different story, because it moves the transaction to compulsory from voluntary. These levels of compensation don’t help that case. Instead they hurt it by reinforcing the idea that higher education is the province of privileged elites who are out of touch with the financial realities of ordinary Americans. In the 2016 election cycle, Bernie Sanders incessantly bashed Hillary Clinton over her speaking fees from Goldman Sachs because it seems like such a clear-cut example of Clinton putting her personal financial interests ahead of her purported policy agenda. If Biden is really serious about college affordability, nothing is preventing him and his wife from donating all $1,689,651 to a scholarship fund.
Ira Stoll is managing editor of Education Next.