How far can $50 million go toward improving college student access?

Centre College is one of the chosen few capitalizing on a huge gift from the Schuler Education Foundation to improve outcomes. Generous donors are climbing on, too.
By: | September 16, 2022
Photo courtesy of Centre College

What does a college do when it gets a $20 million gift from an anonymous donor and $20 million more from a national foundation? It promises to raise another $10 million and put it all toward underserved students.

That is the transformational plan unveiled by Centre College in Kentucky, which is taking the Schuler Education Foundation contribution and the other large gift to change young lives through Schuler’s Access Initiative. Along with a handful of other institutions, including Barnard College, the College of the Holy Cross, Scripps College and Trinity College, the infusion will help provide more opportunities to deserving low-to-middle-income and undocumented students.

“This investment from the Schuler Education Foundation will enable us to strengthen our already robust support for talented students, regardless of their family’s circumstances,” said Mark Nunnelly, chair of the Centre College Board of Trustees. “With outstanding financial aid, academic preparation and career support, there is no limit to what our students can achieve.”

Centre College, one of the most esteemed liberal arts schools in the nation, had just announced an initiative to double the number of first-generation students after receiving a $10 million gift from another anonymous donor and a $1 million grant from the American Talent Initiative to join its Kessler Scholars Collaborative. The latest mission will give 120 new students in the next 10 years the chance to affordably attend the college. The sticker price for tuition, fees, room and board last year at Centre before aid and scholarships totaled around $60,000.

One of Centre’s goals in its strategic plan, which dovetails with the quest to boost first-gen students, is trying to increase its pool of Pell-eligible enrollees. Over the past eight admissions cycles, Centre has grown that group by around 7%, but hopes to have one-fourth of its student population receiving Pells by 2027. The fact that the federal government has in its plans an opportunity to double the amount of maximum grants under the program by 2029, could improve access even further.


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At Trinity College in Harford, Conn., the news of a $20 million grant from Schuler was met with great excitement. It plans to raise an additional $40 million to support curricula and financial aid tailored to low-income and undocumented students. Trinity, whose total cost for a residential on-campus experience is close to $80,000, has helped defray that by boosting financial aid packages by 60% over the past seven years. Like Centre, it has bigger goals, and that is to get to $100 million raised to go toward that aid.

“This is a remarkable moment for our college as we look toward our bicentennial year,” Trinity President Joanne Berger-Sweeney wrote to the community. “When this matching grant is completed, Trinity will become more accessible to deserving and talented students who come from families for whom affordability is a significant barrier. This initiative will open doors to individuals who may have thought that an outstanding liberal arts education was out of reach.”

Union College in New York is planning to add 40 more Pell-eligible students in the next four years.

“Union is one of fewer than 100 schools that meets the full demonstrated need of students,” said President David Harris. “That means that we reach a point where we just don’t have any additional financial aid to offer new students. Each year, as a result, we are simply unable to admit all the exceptional students who need financial aid. That’s why I’m so excited about the Schuler Access Initiative. As a Pell Grant recipient myself, I know firsthand what it’s like to think, ‘Can I attend this school? Can I afford it?’ ”

Those three are part of a group of 20 liberal arts institutions that will be selected by Schuler and include previous recipients Bates College, Carleton College, Kenyon College, Tufts University and Union College. All told, Schuler’s $500 million and the funding from schools will total $1 billion to serve students over the next decade.

“Our family focuses on underrepresented, undocumented and low-income students, because we know that they are smart, capable, hard-working, ambitious students who, when given equal access to opportunities, do great things to benefit our communities,” said Tanya Schuler Sharman, co-founder of the Schuler Education Foundation. “We are thrilled to partner with five additional top colleges that have shown their desire to broaden their support for these students by meeting 100 percent of need for all four years and have proven that they have great graduation rates for all students.”