While Michael Bloomberg’s $1.8 billion gift to Johns Hopkins University last year grabbed headlines due to its size, commentators also called attention to the gift’s unusual focus. In a higher ed space in which donors remain infatuated with extravagant capital projects, every cent of Bloomberg’s gift was earmarked for student aid.
Looking forward, we should get used to this approach, as more donors ride to the rescue of students struggling with the costs of higher education.
Last month, for example, Chris Jeffries, a philanthropist and real estate developer and his wife Lisa committed $33 million to the University of Michigan Law School. According to the school, the entirety of the gift is dedicated to “student support, including scholarships and other forms of financial aid, summer funding programs, and debt management.”
It’s the largest gift in the law school’s history, and the among the largest ever committed to a U.S. law school. The law school’s South Hall will subsequently be renamed Jeffries Hall.
The gift comes on the heels of some other notable donor-led efforts to reduce costs and lighten the student debt burden.
New York University School of Medicine, citing the crisis of “overwhelming financial debt,” announced it would cover the tuition of all its students. St. John’s College, which has campuses in Santa Fe and Annapolis, aims to raise $300 million to reduce annual tuition costs for students by as much as 50 percent. Vanderbilt University replaced all need-based undergraduate student loans with scholarship and grant assistance.
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign announced it will provide free tuition and campus fees for in-state students whose family income is less than $61,000 a year. And Brown University launched a $120 million campaign, dubbed the Brown Promise, to drop all loans from financial aid packages awarded to their undergraduates.
“Law school is a unique way of disciplining your mind, and my time at Michigan was formative and memorable,” said Jeffries, a 1974 graduate of Michigan Law. “I’m especially interested in paying the way forward for students who lack financial resources, and this gift will allow them to have opportunities and experiences they otherwise wouldn't be able to.”
$5 Billion and Counting
The announcement came as the University of Michigan began wrapping up its Victors for Michigan campaign. Like so many other campaigns lately, it was a smashing success. Donors surpassed the $4 billion goal in April 2017 and kept the gifts flowing in the following two fiscal years. In October 2018, UM became—according to its press release—the first public university to raise $5 billion, a figure that’s doubly staggering, considering that Ann Arbor is 620 miles from Wall Street and 2,400 miles from Silicon Valley.
Then again, those attuned to the surge of regional philanthropy sweeping the higher ed space shouldn’t be entirely surprised.
This surge is predicated on two main ideas. One, the demographic reality that wealth is no longer concentrated in the usual coastal enclaves. Forbes recently named six Michigan residents on its 2018 list of the 400 richest Americans. Their collective net worth stands at $26.3 billion. (One of those billionaires, Ronda Stryker, just gave one of the largest gifts ever to a historically black college, Spelman. She went to Michigan State University, as did Michigan’s second most wealthy resident, Dan Gilbert.)
The second key driver behind the regional philanthropy boom is the fact that these schools produce graduates who often go on to make their fortunes elsewhere, but never forget their roots.
Given its lustrous national profile, UM is hardly a typical regional university. And it has a much deeper bench of affluent alumni than most top state institutions, including campaign chair Stephen Ross, the New York real estate tycoon and majority owner of the Miami Dolphins. Ross pledged $100 million toward the UM business school, which is named in his honor, thanks to a $100 million donation in 2004, and another $100 million to the athletic program.
Alumni and New Jersey natives Richard and Susan Rogel committed a total of $150 million during the campaign, including $40 million from a gift announced in 2013 that will benefit the Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Charles Munger, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, gave $20 million to the law school and $100 million toward the building of a new graduate school residence. Chicago philanthropist Helen Zell donated $50 million to college of LS&A. And in July 2016, UM received a $17.5 million commitment from Madeline and Sidney Forbes toward cancer research.
Another factor contributing to UM’s success is the fact that fundraisers effectively broadened the donor base and solicited a huge number of small donations. According to the school, of more than 382,000 donors, 94 percent gave less than $5,000, and more than half made their first gift to UM through the campaign.
Remembering Where It All Started
All of which brings me back to Chris Jeffries.
After obtaining his law degree, he was a partner in the Southfield, Michigan, law firm of Keywell & Rosenfeld, and then a principal in the leveraged buyout of Key International Inc., a major metal recycling and automotive equipment manufacturing business in the Midwest. He ultimately migrated east and made his fortune in the New York real estate market. He still lives there.
The Jeffries’ total lifetime giving to UM now stands at more than $40 million. Previous gifts include $5 million toward the building of South Hall in 2007 and $2.5 million to support the establishment of the Law School's 1L Summer Funding Program in 2015.
The most recent gift, earmarked solely for student support, reflects one of Victors for Michigan’s biggest priorities. Of the $1.1 billion raised for students, 93 percent directly supports undergraduate and graduate scholarships and fellowships, enabling the university to provide financial aid to more than two-thirds of its 46,000 students on the Ann Arbor campus.
And so, while Bloomberg’s mega-gift magnified the issues of affordability and access thanks to its size, other universities have been tackling these challenges—with donor help, of course—in their own unique ways.