Let's Get Residential: Why Are Donors Keen On Funding a College Within a College?

Vanderbilt campus

Vanderbilt campus

Never underestimate the power of nostalgia when it comes to campus giving. It's a driver of a lot of gifts by alumni who fondly remember their undergrad years and put up money to make the same experience possible for today's students. 

This psychology certainly underscores gifts earmarked for a more immersive residential college experience. Who doesn't have fond memories of dorm life?

But something funny happened between your undergraduate years and today. The "residential" college experience evolved. To see what I mean, let's turn to news out of Nashville, where Vanderbilt University announced a $20 million gift from alumnus and board of trust vice chair-elect Jeffrey Rothschild and his wife, Marieke, in support of the university's residential colleges program.

The gift will accelerate the ongoing development of the College Halls, a "living-learning initiative" designed to build community, support student success, and extend educational opportunities beyond the classroom. Launched in 2008, the program enables students to live alongside faculty mentors who guide them through a range of educational programming opportunities during the school year. The Rothschilds' gift will fund the several facilities already in operation as well as additional halls to be built over the next decade.

The gift resembles University of Southern California Trustee David C. Bohnett's May 2016 $15 million pledge to endow the David C. Bohnett Residential College, which will form part of a student community that "integrates living and learning" for up to 320 students as well as faculty-in-residence and student support staff.

And there you have the evolution of the residential college experience.

Back in the day, the "living" and "learning" were distinctly separate. Students woke up, walked to class, then came back to their dorms—places where professors were never seen. But no longer. Donors are now funding what are essentially colleges within colleges. This not a new invention. Yale, for example, has had a residential college system for 70 years, with faculty living alongside students. But there's renewed interest in this idea in an era when it's easier for students to grow isolated by their devices and earbuds, or lost at major universities that keep getting bigger and busier, with more diverse student bodies. 

Which brings me to the expected impact of such funding.

Beyond nostalgia, alumni like giving money to their alma maters because they can easily calculate a return on investment if they so desire. (Think the immediate benefits of, say, scholarships.) So does a more integrated residential college experience contribute to, say, higher test scores or improved GPAs? It's too soon to tell. But in the meantime, donors like the Rothschilds are perfectly content with softer success metrics.

"We owe it to society to have a well-informed population," said Marieke Rothschild. "The College Halls program enables dialogue among a diverse mix of students—along with faculty involvement, which is important. You need to have that cross-pollination among students. And it's not just about gender or race, it goes for majors as well. The College Halls bring engineers together with history majors with artists to live side by side."

Viewed through this lens, the Rothschild's gift interfaces with another timely trend across the higher education space: the intermingling of STEM fields with classical liberal arts studies.

Marieke's use of the word "engineer" was no accident. Her husband graduated from Vanderbilt with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1977 and a master’s in computer science in 1979. He then co-founded Veritas Software and led development of Facebook’s infrastructure platform as its founding vice-president of engineering, serving in that role from 2005-2015.

Rothschild, who is not related to the other Rothschild family, is a kind of Silicon Valley folk hero. He was the oldest person working for Facebook during his tenure and famously saved the social network from crashing. He also owned 18 million Facebook shares.

His net worth today? $1.67 billion and change. I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that his $20 million gift to Vanderbilt won't be his last foray into philanthropy.