Transformational gifts to colleges and universities have been one of the few blessings of the COVID-19 pandemic, from MacKenzie Scott’s headline-making contributions to HBCUs to more silent donations by private philanthropists.
In January, Ashland University in Ohio received a $10 million promise from longtime supporters Bob and Jan Archer. Among other things, the generous gift will help fund four-year scholarships, tuition relief and campus improvements.
Perhaps the most savvy use of that donation was the creation of the Eagle Success grant, which offered no-questions-asked gifts to students facing hardships of up to $1,500. All told, about 500 received direct, education-related relief that totaled close to $500,000. The outpouring of support didn’t stop there. When Ashland got its Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) package, it reached out to assist more students, including those who had gotten smaller amounts in their first round of Eagle Success.
During a crisis, Ashland felt a more personal act of benevolence would have the most profound impact.
“The ability of those students to be able to persist and continue in their education, that was our top priority,” said Keith Ramsdell, Vice President for Enrollment Management and Marketing at Ashland. “We said, let’s invest in enrolled students, where there’s so much uncertainty. If you have an immediate need, between $1 and $1,500, tell us what it is and we’ll do everything we can to meet it.”
The gifts, which averaged around $1,000 apiece and are being dispersed into the fall, can be used for education purposes such as tuition, room and board.
“I wouldn’t say it was like Christmas because we couldn’t meet every need,” said Ramsdell, who is also the former president of NAGAP, The Association for Graduate Enrollment Management. “But it was just such a unique and gratifying experience for those of us on the operational side of things.”
The Ashland Promise
One of the mottos at Ashland, a private mid-sized university founded in 1878 and steeped in Christian values, is “accent on the individual.” That commitment includes providing an affordable education, support to students through mentorships and life experiences, and assistance beyond graduation. During the past year, those words have taken on enhanced meaning as the institution has sought ways to give back to students and families who have been impacted financially.
The Archer family’s support and the efforts of Ashland’s staff have made bridging those gaps a reality.
“Our team members did remarkable work to make [Eagle Success] happen,” Ramsdell said. “Our financial aid office and retention office worked collaboratively to balance various needs that maximized the number of students whose lives could be impacted. We repackaged hundreds of students with these extra Archer success grants. If somebody comes back to us and says they can’t close the gap enough as a family, we’ve been given instructions to help those individuals even more.”
The outpouring of support has been both unusual and heartwarming, Ramsdell said. The Archers, for example, not only have given the biggest single donation in Ashland history but have provided a continuous stream of gifts, backing the university’s athletic programs and investing in its seminary and Ashbrook Scholars program.
“You have people like Bob and Jan Archer, who so believe in our mission and the school that they are going to invest in it with millions of dollars,” Ramsdell said. “I’ve never experienced anything like this in my career. I don’t think you can start in a new position, like I did, and expect some benefactor to walk in one day and say we’re committing millions of dollars to this institution.”
In addition to Eagle Success, trustees have pitched in with 2-for-1 Tuition Relief Scholarships, which will give a semester free in Spring 2022 for first-time, full-time residential students who pay fall tuition and earn a 2.0 GPA.
How have students responded to all this giving?
“Some are saying, it’s just unbelievable,” Ramsdell said. “Others say, it sounds good but there’s got to be strings. We just want to make the experience affordable.”
Though $10 million donations happen infrequently, big gifts have been occurring more routinely during the pandemic. When those donations happen, Ramsdell said it is important for universities to get creative and look beyond traditional ways to help students succeed.
“We always need to be considering what’s in the students’ best interest and how can we meet those needs more holistically,” he said. “Ask different questions or maybe ask them in a different way not only what can we do for students in the classroom. Our students have bigger needs than that.”