An Unsustainable Model? Not to These Donors Doubling Down on Residential Colleges

photo: Paul Brady Photography/shutterstock

photo: Paul Brady Photography/shutterstock

With the American higher education system besieged by rising costs, escalating tuition, and a metastasizing student loan crisis, many experts are arguing for more affordable and accessible approaches to post-secondary education. Alternatives to four years of quad life include faster competency-based credentialing and models that stress online learning. 

At least a few donors are on board, like Chicago financier Larry Gies and his wife Beth. The couple recently gave $150 million to the University of Illinois to "use technology to democratize" education, among other things. By exploring how online courses can lower costs and remove barriers to entry, the Gieses are among the few mega-donors addressing the root causes of the student loan crisis. 

More typical are donors who have fond memories of their campus years and are determined that future generations be able to enjoy the same kind of experience—or better. Recent news out of Tennessee reminds us that many donors remain committed to the immersive benefits of a residential college experience.

Vanderbilt University board of trust chairman Bruce R. Evans and his wife Bridgitt committed $20 million to support university initiatives focused on the "undergraduate living-learning experience." The gift also includes support for leadership positions in the School of Engineering and an unrestricted bequest for future use.

While many colleges are giving online courses a second look, Vanderbilt is doubling down on its residential model. In January, the school announced a $600 million capital project that calls for replacing aging residence halls with "innovative residential colleges" over the next five years. 

"Four-year residential college systems exist at only a handful of American universities, most notably at Harvard and Yale," the press release read. "Vanderbilt is the only American university undertaking a project of this scale and scope today."

Support from Reliable Education Funders

Bridgitt Evans is the co-founder and president of VIA Art Fund, a national nonprofit supporting the contemporary visual arts. (You can check out my 2016 interview with her on the state of arts funding here.) Before founding VIA, she worked as a real estate investor and earned an MBA from Harvard Business School and a B.S. from Miami University.

Bruce, meanwhile, earned his MBA from Harvard Business School, and is a former managing director and current chairman of the board of Summit Partners, a Boston-based investment firm that is currently managing $14 billion in capital.

The couple established the Evans Family Foundation in 2000 with a focus on the arts and education. Previous grantees include Bowdoin College, Boston College, and Roxbury Latin School. They've also created an endowed scholarship fund at their respective undergrad alma maters to help students attend Harvard Business School.

Additional support to Vanderbilt includes undergraduate scholarships and leadership positions in the Vanderbilt Career Center and the university’s innovation hub, the Wond’ry.

Commenting on their most recent gift, Bridgitt said, "We are deeply committed to investing in a residential college experience where future leaders can harness the unique, collaborative spirit on this campus to solve problems and drive innovation."

Understanding the "Undergraduate Living-Learning Experience"

While the school's press release didn't articulate how the Evans gift will specifically support its "living-learning communities," a read of its Undergraduate Residential Experience website and previous gifts to the school provide some clues.

"We believe proximity matters—science, arts, medicine, the humanities, engineering, and more exist within steps of one another on our campus," the site reads.

Vanderbilt alumnus and board of trust vice chair-elect Jeffrey Rothschild and his wife Marieke are believers as well. In 2016, the couple made a $20 million gift for the development of the College Halls, a living-learning initiative designed to "build community, support student success, and extend educational opportunities beyond the classroom."

"The College Halls program enables dialogue among a diverse mix of students—along with faculty involvement, which is important," Marieke Rothschild said at the time. "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."

A year later, the College Halls received a $10 million gift from an anonymous donor.

While Vanderbilt may be somewhat of an outlier in terms of the scale of its residential college model, the idea itself has attracted donor support elsewhere. 

A couple of years ago, University of Southern California (USC) trustee David C. Bohnett made a $15 million pledge to endow and name the David C. Bohnett Residential College, which will focus on the principles of "social justice and community service" and 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.

"It’s my hope and aspiration that the Bohnett Residential College will afford USC students with a richly immersive college experience and help prepare them to be actively engaged members of the community throughout their lives," Bohnett said in making the gift. 

A year later, USC Trustee Shelly Nemirovsky and her husband Ofer made a gift of $15 million to endow and name another residential college at USC. "Knowing that all USC students will now have the opportunity to continue conversations beyond the classroom, in the spirit of collaboration, is thrilling for me, and I believe that I am privileged to witness this seminal moment," Shelly said.

An Enduring Appeal

The line of thinking espoused by the Evanses, Rothschilds, Bohnett, and the Nemirovskys explains why donors remain bullish on the integrative residential college experience. College, by definition, should be integrative, collaborative and communal, especially given the growing body of research suggesting that the liberal arts can complement STEM education. E-learning cannot replicate this kind of cross-disciplinary learning environment.

Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos made that point in announcing Vanderbilt's ambitious capital campaign earlier this year. "In a time when long-distance learning and online courses make getting a degree quicker and easier, Vanderbilt is choosing to invest deeply and broadly in an intensive, in-person experience," he said. The campaign's $600 million price tag is hefty, but demand is strong for Vanderbilt's "intensive, in-person experience." As of 2016, its acceptance rate was 10.7 percent. The total cost of attendance at Vanderbilt last year was $67,392. The school's endowment, meanwhile, stands at $4.1 billion.

Contrast this picture with the University of Illinois. Wracked by ongoing budget cuts, enrollment at many of Illinois' public universities dropped in 2017. University officials have had no choice but to embrace technology to reduce costs. Fortunately, the school found an ally in the Gieses.

In a way, this is another tale of two Americas. In some flush universities, where times are good, the ideal of the immersive residential experience remains strong and finds the support of deep-pocketed donors. Maybe that model is, indeed, unsustainable over the long term, but you wouldn't know it by watching the flow of donor dollars. As we've so often noted, plenty of campus patrons are eager enablers of a gold-plated higher ed model that entails sky-high tuition costs and, for many grads, decades of student debt. 

In theory, campus donors concerned about the student debt crisis could help end it by using the power of their purse to impose more discipline on higher ed institutions or to bankroll new experimentation with leaner models. In practice, they're often the best friends that free spending universities have—after private lenders and the federal government.