The Least for Those Who Need It Most

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Good morning. Today, we focus on the back story behind this week’s huge philanthropic gifts.

Alcorn State University, Santa Fe College and West Kentucky Community and Technical College are all working-class colleges. Most of their students are lower-income, and many are trying to become the first member of their family to earn a college degree.

If you spend time on any of these campuses, you are likely to come away feeling inspired. The students have often endured hardship — like a dysfunctional high school, an abusive relationship or wartime military service — and figured out how to keep going.

You may also notice something else: The colleges trying to educate these students are doing so on a shoestring budget.

West Kentucky spends $7,200 annually per student on education — money that needs to cover the salaries of professors and support staff, as well as labs and other educational resources. Alcorn State (in Mississippi) and Santa Fe (in Florida) each spend less than $14,000. So does Borough of Manhattan Community College, in New York.

Want to guess how much money Ivy League colleges spend on education per student each year? About $100,000 on average, according to a report by Third Way. Elite public universities often spend more than $30,000.

These funding gaps exacerbate both economic and racial inequality. “The dollars don’t go to the people who truly need it,” Jeff Strohl, of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, told me. Without enough resources, working-class colleges tend to have low graduation rates. Many of their students struggle to find good-paying jobs and to repay their college loans.

As inspiring as the students at a place like Alcorn State may be, they can’t overcome every obstacle put in their path.

This week, the philanthropist MacKenzie Scott — who helped shape Amazon, during the years she was married to Jeff Bezos — announced that she had given away more than $4 billion, mostly to organizations focused on economic hardship. “This pandemic has been a wrecking ball in the lives of Americans already struggling,” Scott wrote on Medium.

Scott’s 384 recipients included 36 colleges, all with large numbers of lower-income students. The four colleges I mentioned above are on the list. In some cases, the gifts are the largest that the colleges have received.

“I was stunned,” Ruth Simmons, the president of Prairie View A&M, a historically Black university in Texas, told my colleague Anemona Hartocollis. When Simmons heard in a phone call that the gift would be $50 million, she wasn’t sure she had heard correctly. The caller had to clarify: “five-zero.”

Higher education experts are praising Scott for giving money to the colleges that need it the most, rather than to colleges that already have the most. Strohl called her choice of recipients “brilliant.”

But the experts are also careful to add another point: Scott’s gifts are not nearly large enough to erase the annual funding gaps created by the government. Her donations will make a difference in part because the problem they’re trying to address is so severe. The country’s higher education system often hampers upward mobility.


The Virus

The F.D.A. could approve Moderna’s vaccine today. Moderna’s vaccine can be stored in normal freezers, making it easier to ship than Pfizer’s, which needs ultracold storage.

As Singapore eases virus restrictions, low-wage migrant workers continue to be mostly confined to dormitories. The government’s handling of the outbreak has renewed questions about how the country treats its foreign workers.

The Supreme Court refused to exempt religious schools in Kentucky from an order that temporarily shut down schools, whether public or private, to curb the spread of the virus.

Representative Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, one of President-elect Joe Biden’s closest advisers, tested positive.

Benny Napoleon, a longtime sheriff in Michigan and a former Detroit police chief, died from Covid complications at 65.

Millions of Americans dropped out of the labor force during the first two months of the pandemic. Many have not returned. These nine charts show how the economy is faring.


Biden picked Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico to lead the Interior Department, which oversees 500 million acres of public lands. Haaland, a progressive who endorsed Elizabeth Warren, would be the first Native American to lead a cabinet agency.

And Biden will nominate Michael Regan, North Carolina’s top environmental regulator, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.

Lawmakers are continuing to finalize a $900 billion stimulus package. Democrats worked to include more emergency aid to states while Republicans moved to prevent the Federal Reserve from restarting loan programs.

Other Big Stories

Biden said he would impose “substantial costs” on the parties responsible for the recent hack of the U.S. government — presumably a Russian intelligence agency.

Prosecutors in 38 states and territories accused Google of illegally arranging its search results to push out smaller rivals. It’s the third major antitrust suit against the company in the past few months.

In a rare public appearance, two members of the billionaire Sackler family that owns the maker of OxyContin, denied personal responsibility for the opioid epidemic.

More than 300 Nigerian schoolboys were released, six days after armed men abducted them.

Robinhood, a stock-trading app that has attracted millions of young users, agreed to pay a $65 million fine to settle charges from the Securities and Exchange Commission that it had misled customers.

A Swiss court cut Russia’s four-year doping ban from global sports in half. Russia’s teams will still miss the 2021 and 2022 Olympics.

Morning Reads

Good Spirits: How do you make Chartreuse? Only two people know the full recipe for the French liquor — and they’re not talking.

From Opinion: A single shot of the Covid-19 vaccines, rather than the planned two doses, may protect people, potentially doubling the number of people who can be immunized, Zeynep Tufekci and Michael Mina argue.

Lives Lived: The composer Harold Budd was initially drawn to experimental musical styles like free jazz and early minimalism. He later broke with them to create a signature, piano-centric sound that first drew wide notice on his 1978 album, “The Pavilion of Dreams.” Budd died, from complications of the coronavirus, at 84.

The Times now offers a personalized update on coronavirus numbers. Click here to pick the locations you care about and sign up for the email, and each morning we’ll send you the latest data.


Beyond ‘coming out’

Last month, Hulu released one of the first major Christmas movies about a same-sex couple, “Happiest Season.” The movie broke records on the platform and received largely positive reviews from critics. It also reopened a longtime debate about L.G.B.T.Q. representation: Why are queer stories in Hollywood so often about coming out?

In “Happiest Season,” Abby (played by Kristen Stewart) goes to the family home of her girlfriend, Harper (played by Mackenzie Davis), for Christmas. Harper’s family doesn’t know she is gay, and the movie centers on hiding this.

“There are ways to make the coming-out experience feel modern,” Michael Cuby wrote in the online magazine Them. “Throwing Kristen Stewart into a cupboard with a Roomba just so she can be found by someone who winkingly asks, ‘Abby, what are you doing in the closet?’ is certainly not one.”

At the same time, with few mainstream queer movies available, the pressures on such films are large. “I think that no matter what it did, people were going to be disappointed that it wasn’t doing something else,” Lena Wilson, who has written about film and L.G.B.T.Q. issues for The Times, said.

But the situation may slowly be changing. “Happiest Season” is one of at least six holiday movies with gay or lesbian leads this year. As Sarah Kate Ellis, the chief executive of GLAAD, put it, “When you start to see the quantity rise, then you can have various storylines that show the different aspects and agency of the L.G.B.T.Q. community.”


What to Cook

For a weekend project, try Samin Nosrat’s lasagna.

What to Listen to

Here are this year’s 10 best episodes of “The Daily,” according to the team that makes the podcast.

What to Play

From Animal Crossing to Call of Duty, these video games got Times reporters through the year. (The list could also serve as a gift guide for the gamers in your life.)

For the Love of Ballet

“On Pointe,” a six-part documentary on Disney+, shows life inside the School of American Ballet through the eyes of its dancers. Don’t expect a cliché-riddled ballet story: “Listen, I loved ‘Black Swan’ when I saw it,” the show’s director told The Times. “But that wasn’t what we were making.” Read the review here.


“Doomscrolling,” “unprecedented,” “pod”: Here are 20 phrases that defined 2020.

Late Night

Stephen Colbert compared President Trump’s health adviser to a comic book villain.

Now Time to Play

The pangrams from yesterday’s Spelling Bee were hegemony and homogeny. Today’s puzzle is above — or you can play online if you have a Games subscription.

Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Doofuses (five letters).

And our weekly news quiz.

Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you Monday. — David

You can see today’s print front page here.

Today’s episode of “The Daily” is about evictions during the pandemic. And on “The Argument,” Opinion writers discuss Georgia’s Senate runoff elections.

Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick and Sanam Yar contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at

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