Michigan couple who once gave $128 million to 550 employees, turn their attention to college scholarships

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Bob and Ellen Thompson, a couple in their 90s, are donating $121 million to expand a scholarship program at Bowling Green State University. But there are strings attached to make sure recipients earn degrees. 

According to the terms, 80% of the students receiving support must graduate within four years. Otherwise, the public school in Ohio has to foot the bill for each extra semester of tuition. 

“The return on these children when they go out in the world is much stronger than a return on your money,” Bob Thompson said in a Zoom interview from his Florida home. Bowling Green “embraced the accountability.” 

The Thompson scholars program is taking on one of the most intractable problems in US higher education: college completion. On average, only about half of students earn a degree within six years, a recent study showed. The longer they take, the costlier college becomes. And if students drop out after taking loans, they end up with debt and no degree. 

The Thompsons, who both graduated from Bowling Green, required other conditions as well. The school must provide matching funds. Student recipients still pay for some costs, and they have to volunteer 20 hours each year of their scholarship. 

Students are also required to attend mentoring sessions to discuss their studies and career opportunities. That helped keep Steve Iwanek on track even in the face of tragedy, after an accident two years ago in which a drunk driver injured him and killed a classmate as they returned from a Cleveland Guardians baseball game. When his phone was recovered, he noticed that one of the first messages waiting was from his Thompson scholars coach. 

“There’s a real sense of personal care that they have for each student that is unique to them,” said Iwanek, who recently graduated and now works as a TV reporter. 

Support Structures

That kind of attention isn’t universally present in higher education. Strong mentorship can help, and students also need clarity about work and career opportunities after graduating, said Vassar College President Elizabeth Bradley. 

In a 2023 report, she and two colleagues found that the graduation rate over six years – the metric tracked by the US Education Department – averages only 51%. In the short term, it’s hard to change the reasons for low rates, such as the support some schools get from their endowments. Private colleges typically have better performances than public ones.  

“Having structures of advising and support that help students persist is important,” Bradley said.  

Bowling Green, which is located near Toledo and has a total enrollment of about 19,000, created an office with seven full-time employees to work with the Thompson scholars. Freshmen who started this year receive $11,000 annually. The grant, split between the Thompsons and the school, covers about 75% of tuition and fees that are fixed for the duration of their college years. 

Students pay for room, board and other costs. Their most popular majors are early childhood education, nursing and psychology. The average graduation rate in four years or less is 89% for Thompson scholars. 

Asphalt Business

The Thompsons spent decades building an asphalt-paving business in southern Michigan, which they sold in 1999 for more than $420 million (they drew widespread media attention at the time for giving more than $125 million to their employees). But they had little contact after graduating from Bowling Green until they were invited to a football game the next year between their alma mater and the University of Michigan (Bowling Green lost 42-7). 

Their first pilot project started a decade ago with 15 students and was “pressure-tested” over the years, Bob Thompson said. The program grew to about 1,000 students this year, and the new donation will enable the school to add another 450 to it. 

While the gift is the largest in Bowling Green’s history, donations of $100 million or more are becoming less anomalous, especially in the rarefied world of the richest schools. 

In recent years, the list of such contributions included $1.1 billion for Stanford University from venture capitalist John Doerr and $300 million for Harvard University from Citadel founder Ken Griffin. 

This year, Spelman College, the historically Black college in Atlanta, received a $100 million donation from a trustee. Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York got $1 billion to keep tuition free. 

For Bowling Green, however, the Thompsons’ latest gift won’t last forever. Another condition is that the university has to use the scholarship money by 2035 instead of folding it into its endowment. 

The couple wanted the funds spent in the immediate future while they still have a personal relationship with school leaders such as President Rodney Rogers. 

They decided to expand the program after achieving strong investment returns and selling two other businesses more recently, and they’re willing to give another $30 million if the results are there. Ellen Thompson said they’re still keeping an eye on their own spending, though. 

“We haven’t changed our standard of living,” Ellen Thompson said. “I still cut coupons.”

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