Awash in debt, many colleges pay huge sums for celebrity speakers

Amid criticism college tuition is rising at an unprecedented rate, administrators are paid handsome salaries and some college football and basketball coaches are earning in excess of $3 million per year, numerous colleges and universities are bestowing thousands, occasionally hundreds of thousands, in payments to celebrities and pop cultural figures to address their student body.

According to, which routinely tracks individuals invited to speak at commencement addresses, of the top 100 schools surveyed, approximately 25 speakers invited to colleges and universities are non-academics.

With rare exception, few are not compensated for their speeches; and politicians are most often not willing to speak without remuneration.

Journalist Bill Moyers, astronaut Scott Kelly and movie star Matthew McConaughey headlined speaking events or commencement addresses in the past, earning between $35,000 to $135,000 per speech.  McConaughey earned $135,000 from the University of Houston in 2015.

While Hillary Clinton is certainly a public figure worth some expense, her 2014 speech at a fundraiser for the University of Nevada Las Vegas fetched her $225,000, despite the state swelling tuition an astounding 17 percent in one year.

“You could give scholarships to thousands of students, benefit research on campus, give more students grants for research and studying,” said Daniel Waqar, a student-relations director of UNLV’s Student Government.

In 2011, Rutgers University paid $32,000 to Nicole Polizzi for a two-hour address to Scarlet Knight students.

Polizzi is best known as “Snooki” from MTV’s reality series, Jersey Shore.  Rutgers defended the selection of the hollow cast member from the reality show claiming the choice was made by students.

While the wave of celebrities assuming roles of keynote speakers once reserved for academics, politicians and military officers is on an upward trajectory and the cost incurred is questionable, some colleges do indeed reject extending invitations to celebrities and often turn to school administrators or faculty to deliver keynote or commencement addresses.

I’m not going to use student tuition dollars to pay a person who’s already pretty wealthy to come and pontificate.  I can think of a lot of things to do with that kind of money that would be more valuable to our students,” said Bradley University President, Gary Johnson.

At least Bradley University has it right.


[Forbes] [] [RT News] [] [Las Vegas Review-Journal]