The buzz on George Mason University's law school campus was anxious. University trustees had approved a $192 tuition increase to offset a steep reduction in state funding, and many students were struggling to figure out how to make ends meet come spring.
One first-year law student heard the talk and knew exactly what he would do.
He opened his wallet and made a $19,200 anonymous donation earmarked to cover the fees for 100 of his neediest classmates.
"It was clear there were some students that this [fee increase] would be a great hardship to," said the donor, who agreed to be interviewed only if his identity were withheld. "Many of them are just starting out in life. They don't have much money. . . . It seemed that maybe they could use the help."
School officials said yesterday that act of goodwill has already expanded. As word of the donation spread before Thanksgiving, another first-year law student gave the school $1,000 for the same purpose. Since then, more than 30 law school alumni have pledged $11,000 to help cover the $192 fee.
"It's brought a lot of goodwill," said Anne Richard, assistant dean and director of admissions at the law school. "It's stirred giving."
Law school Dean Mark F. Grady said the donor met with him last month with one thing on his mind -- a desire to help.
"This is a pure act of generosity on his part," Grady said. "He's a student here, and it could create an unwelcome situation for him to become a celebrity [on campus]. He's not looking for that role. He just wants to be generous."
That generosity was met warmly by students still reeling from statewide education belt-tightening and a 25 percent tuition increase just months ago. Earlier this year, GMU officials said they would be leaving 150 faculty positions unfilled. The impact of state cuts would be far worse, they said, without the $192 surcharge, which will help cover a third of the latest $10 million cut in state funding.
"The schools are definitely belt-tightening," said Fran Bradford, spokeswoman for the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. "Some are closing class sections. Some are increasing class sizes. Some are cutting back on library hours. . . . Certainly the students are most affected by the tuition increases."
Eligibility for the money among Mason's 800 law students will be based on need and who applies first, school officials said.
Harish Ruchandani, 24, is putting himself through his first year of law at Mason and was quick to put his name on the list after he heard about the available money.
"I was shocked," Ruchandani said. "I said, 'Are you serious? Where do I apply?' "
The money, Ruchandani said, would mean a small but significant savings, perhaps the difference between bringing lunch to school every day and being able to go to a campus eatery once in a while.
"It's really generous," Ruchandani said. "It really creates good spirit all the way around. Knowing that someone was there to help me get through my education, if I'm in that position one day, it makes me want to give back, too."
Anne Mitchell, 28, graduates in May and has every intention of paying the donated "loan" back to the school.
"I wasn't sure if I should put myself on the list," Mitchell said. "I'm not starving to death or eating ramen noodles every night, but that's $200 that can go toward books next semester. . . . When I graduate and have a job, I can give that back. It's not like it's a handout. It's something to help tide you over."
No one is asking for the money back, certainly not the donor, who said he gives regularly to charity, churches and museums. He said he simply saw a need and knew he could help.
"I honestly believe there are a lot of people who would help if they knew it was needed," he said. "Let's hope it causes more people to do it. That would be neat."