“Alright, alright, alright.”
Yes, Matthew McConaughey used his famed catchphrase while giving the commencement speech at the University of Houston this spring. The Oscar-winning actor also mentioned that while working on the movie that gave birth to the much-repeated phrase—Richard Linklater’s legendary 1993 film Dazed and Confused—he was psyched to be earning $325 a day.
Fast-forward to 2015, and McConaughey is doing better than merely “alright” in terms of his earning potential for a given day. After hounding the University of Houston to release the terms of the actor’s commencement appearance, the Houston Chronicle reported that McConaughey’s fee was $135,000 plus travel and expenses—money that McConaughey said he was giving to charity.
The University of Houston is hardly the only public university that paid a handsome sum to a high-profile commencement speaker this spring. The Boston Globe just revealed that three state schools in Massachusetts paid $25,000 to $35,000 apiece, “or amounts totaling more than a year’s worth of the tuition and fees they charge students,” for graduation speakers. The University of Massachusetts-Amherst (disclosure: I work there part-time) paid Neil deGrasse Tyson $25,000 for a speech that lasted roughly 15 minutes, plus almost $3,000 extra to cover the celebrity astrophysicist’s expenses and expected taxes. UMass-Lowell paid actor LeVar Burton $35,000 total for three speeches (two commencement events and a fundraiser), while Westfield State University paid $30,000 plus expenses for a 14-minute commencement speech by Brandon Stanton, the photographer and creator of Humans of New York.
These fees may seem exorbitant, but they’re actually on par with what many colleges have paid for commencement speeches in the past. According to InsideHigherEd.com, Katie Couric received $110,000 for the 2006 commencement address at the University of Oklahoma, and High Point University paid Rudy Giuliani $75,000 to be commencement speaker in 2005.
Universities defend such fees as necessary and worthwhile because they raise the profile of their institutions and help attract new students and increase involvement and donations from alumni. Still, it’s been estimated that only about 30% of colleges pay for commencement speakers. That means the majority of speakers offer their commencement addresses for free.