Donors Bring Fighters to Top Colleges

  • Prosperity
  • 2013

Bill Ahmanson has a long history of supporting high-quality colleges, particularly in his home region of southern California. But he noticed that young men and women with military experience were underrepresented on these campuses. Indeed, at institutions like Harvard, Duke, Princeton, and MIT, the number of veterans enrolled as undergrads today can be counted literally on one hand. On the other hand, young people just out of the military are doing superbly at excellent universities like Columbia, Georgetown, USC, and Syracuse, so it’s clear the problem is simply that some elite colleges have no idea how to enroll students who don’t follow the conventional “right out of high school” path to campus.

Ahmanson went to work to help fix this at colleges in his area. He even included campuses that didn’t seem like prime candidates to enroll veterans, like three art schools and a women’s college. He asked leaders at the 24 campuses he partnered with to simply pledge initially that they would enroll at least one more veteran every year than they had in their prior class. This allowed administrators to gradually discover how to make themselves more compatible with students from military backgrounds. Ahmanson offered each of the campuses an annual gift of $50,000 for scholarship aid and new programming that would make veterans a normal and permanent part of their student bodies. A number of schools found other donors willing to match the Ahmanson funds, or augmented the funds themselves.

After four years, Ahmanson had invested $5 million in this effort, and many of the participating colleges “blew the doors” off their modest pledges. Some schools ended up with hundreds of veterans enrolled as undergraduates. Across the country, other donors were providing funds at this same time for similar mixes of dedicated scholarships and new administrative efforts to support veterans on top campuses. For instance, a number of companies donated money to the Posse Foundation to support its new program to enroll vets at places like Vassar College, Wesleyan University, and Dartmouth College. Real-estate developer Conrad Prebys pledged $20 million in 2014 for scholarships aimed at veterans in his hometown of San Diego.

The effort spread not only to other colleges but to different kinds of degrees: In 2016, Eric Gleacher gave $10 million to the University of Chicago to help veterans get MBAs there, and brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta put $15 million into New York University for the same purpose. The next year, Peter Nolan followed suit with a $10 million commitment to support veterans at Cornell’s business school.

  • Thomas Meyer, Uniform Champions: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Excellent Assistance for Veterans (Philanthropy Roundtable, 2017)