Michigan couple who once donated $128 million to 550 employees are now turning to college scholarships

Bob and Ellen Thompson, a couple in their 90s, are donating $121 million to expand a scholarship program at Bowling Green State University. However, there are strings attached to ensure that recipients earn a degree.

According to the conditions, 80% of the supported students must graduate within four years. Otherwise, the public school in Ohio must foot the bill for each additional semester of study.

“The return on these kids when they go out into the world is much higher than the return on your money,” Bob Thompson said in a Zoom interview from his home in Florida. Bowling Green “accepted the responsibility.”

The Thompson Scholars Program addresses one of the most persistent problems in U.S. higher education: college completion. On average, only about half of students graduate within six years, a recent study found. The longer they last, the more expensive the course becomes. And when students drop out after taking out a loan, they end up with debt and no degree.

The Thompsons, who both graduated from Bowling Green, also demanded different conditions. The school must provide appropriate resources. Fellows continue to cover some costs and are required to volunteer 20 hours each year during their fellowship.

Students are also required to attend mentoring sessions to discuss their study and career options. That helped Steve Iwanek stay the course in the face of tragedy after he suffered 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 for him was from his Thompson Scholar coach.

“They really care personally about each student and are unique,” ​​said Iwanek, a recent graduate who now works as a television reporter.

Support structures

This kind of attention is not universal in higher education. Strong mentorship can be helpful, and students also need clarity about work and career options after graduation, said Elizabeth Bradley, president of Vassar College.

In a 2023 report, she and two colleagues found that the six-year graduation rate — the metric tracked by the U.S. Department of Education — averages just 51%. In the short term, it is difficult to change the reasons for the low rates, such as the support that some schools receive from their foundations. Private universities generally perform better than public ones.

“It is important to have advising and support structures in place to help students persevere,” Bradley said.

Bowling Green, which is near Toledo and has a total student population of about 19,000, has established an office with seven full-time employees to work with the Thompson Scholars. Freshmen who started this year will receive $11,000 annually. The grant, split between the Thompsons and the school, covers about 75% of the tuition and fees set for the duration of their academic years.

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

Asphalt business

The Thompsons spent decades building an asphalt paving business in southern Michigan, which they sold in 1999 for more than $420 million (at the time, they received widespread media attention for giving more than $125 million to their employees). After graduating from Bowling Green, however, they had little contact 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 began a decade ago with 15 students and has been “tested” over the years, Bob Thompson said. The program grew to about 1,000 students this year, and the new donation will allow the school to add another 450 students.

While the donation is the largest in Bowling Green's history, donations of $100 million or more are becoming less unusual, especially in the rarefied world of the wealthiest schools.

In recent years, the list of such contributions included $1.1 billion to Stanford University from venture capitalist John Doerr and $300 million to 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. The Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York received $1 billion to keep tuition free.

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

The couple wanted the funds to be spent in the immediate future while maintaining a personal relationship with school leaders such as President Rodney Rogers.

They decided to expand the program after recently seeing strong investment returns and selling two more companies, and are ready to donate an additional $30 million when the results are in. However, Ellen Thompson said they are still keeping an eye on their own expenses.

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

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