The gift is certain to make waves among women’s colleges, a sector of higher education that has struggled financially in the past half-century, despite the storied traditions of schools such as Barnard, Mount Holyoke, Scripps, Spelman and Wellesley colleges.
“Many on the outside world have asked, ‘Is there a reason to have women’s colleges at this moment in time?’ ” said Mary Dana Hinton, president of Hollins. “My response to that is always, ‘Our missions are more important than ever.’
“This gift allows our institution to have a stable foundation to continue that mission well into the future,” Hinton said. It is also, she added, “an important statement about women’s colleges as a whole.”
Philanthropic records in higher education can be difficult to track because of inflation and the often secretive nature of donations. Donations given long ago, around the time of a school’s founding, are worth far more now in present dollars.
The largest gift since 1967, according to a list kept by the Chronicle of Higher Education, was $1.8 billion, given by Mike Bloomberg to Johns Hopkins University, his alma mater, in 2018.
The Chronicle list includes $50 million donations to Wellesley and Smith, two highly regarded liberal arts colleges for women in Massachusetts, in 2015 and 2020, respectively. But it does not mention any larger gifts to a women’s college.
The previous record gift to Hollins was $20 million, announced in 2016, from alumna Elizabeth Hall McDonnell and her husband, James S. McDonnell III, through a charitable trust. This new gift is one of the largest ever to any Virginia college or university.
Women’s colleges lost market share after a large number of colleges and universities dominated by men began to admit women in the 1960s and ’70s. What was once a group of more than 200 schools now amounts to fewer than 40, according to the Women’s College Coalition. The latest sign of consolidation: Mills College, a women’s school in California, announced this year that it is merging with coeducational Northeastern University in Massachusetts.
Yet advocates say women’s colleges have enduring strength. Sweet Briar College, a women’s school near Lynchburg, Va., that was on the verge of closing in 2015, has stayed open. This week, it announced the reaffirmation of its accreditation, a crucial indicator of educational health.
“The sector is doing really well and is really strong in our sense of identity,” said Ann McElaney-Johnson, president of Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles, who chairs the board of the Women’s College Coalition. “We have really doubled-down on that mission to provide space and access to women and to prepare them for productive careers as leaders.”
McElaney-Johnson said the largest donation to her university was $15 million, given last year by billionaire MacKenzie Scott. (Scott is the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post.)
Mount Saint Mary’s has about 2,000 undergraduates, including a few men in nursing programs. A large share of the university’s students are Hispanic and come from low-income families.
At Hollins, there are some men in graduate programs, but the undergraduates are all women. Among its most popular majors are those in creative arts, English, biology and social sciences.
Founded in 1842, the college draws a little more than half its students from Virginia. More than a third have enough financial need to qualify for federal Pell grants.
“We have always worked hard to create access for women,” Hinton said. “We’re an intentionally small community. … We are small so we can know the names of all our students, so students don’t fall through the cracks.”
The list price for annual tuition at Hollins is $39,360, not including room and board. But few pay that much: The university routinely offers scholarships and financial aid to discount the price significantly. Now it will be able to offer aid from a position of far more financial strength.
Hinton, who has been in office since August 2020, said she has met the donor, who wants to remain unidentified. “She’s an alumna who cares deeply about Hollins,” Hinton said.
The gift will be conveyed over three years, an aggressive timetable, and will go straight into the endowment.
“Hollins’ mission and the value of its enduring presence and direction as a progressive institution were the catalyst for my gift and the urgency of making the money available immediately,” the donor said in a statement through the university. “It ensures Hollins can move forward, with confidence, as an institution committed to students and the liberal arts.”
Hinton, who holds a bachelor’s degree from Williams College and a doctorate in religion and religious education from Fordham University, was herself a first-generation college student. Her mother was a maid. Financial aid, to her, is personal.
“I don’t want a sticker price, ranking system or anything else to get in the way of a student successfully pursuing an education,” Hinton said. “This gift will impact generations of students on the Hollins campus. It is truly transformational.”