WMU says $550M gift will help more students graduate, have better careers, and live happier lives

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

A lot of people start college but don’t finish.
Sometimes their interests change, or their goals change, or their life circumstances change. But officials at Western Michigan University say sometimes students’ paths to a good career and a meaningful life are not clear; sometimes they are overwhelmed by stress and personal issues, and sometimes they simply run out of money.
So the university hopes to use a massive new $550 million donation, provided by WMU alumni who have chosen not to be named, to help remove those barriers to graduation.
“Our donors’ No. 1 motivation for the gift is being able to transform the lives of students and the result of that will be a transformed Kalamazoo,” says Kristen DeVries, vice president of advancement at Western Michigan University and executive director of the WMU Foundation. “So we are looking forward to graduating even more students and really being able to serve a broader population and making sure our university and the professionals within it look like the community we’re serving.”
Called the Empowering Futures Gift, the donation is to be provided to the WMU Foundation in $55 million annual increments over a 10-year period. Announced on June 8, it is the largest philanthropic donation in the history of the university and the most money given to a public institution of higher education in U.S. history.
More resources to help students will be possible with a $550 million donation being made to WMU says Kristen DeVries, VP for Advancement at Western Michigan University and executive director of the WMU Foundation.Among other things, the funding will help the student population and faculty “reflect the world we would like to see,” DeVries says. Diversity is a key, she says, because students learn from people who are NOT just like themselves and it is better to have a broader perspective. “So the more diverse our classrooms are, the more effective we can teach any kind of content, be it accounting or history or any other topic,” she says.
WMU President Edward Montgomery has also said, at its core, the donors' belief “is that inclusive education empowers people and communities to create a bright future for all.”
But what will the gift really mean to students?
Approximately $200 million will support need-based financial aid, faculty hiring, and numerous student-centered initiatives. Some $300 million will be allocated to the Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine to advance medical education and research. And $50 million is to be allocated to WMU athletics to support student-athletes and increase athletic competitiveness.
A commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion is at the center of donors' wishes with the largest private gift in the history of Western Michigan University, officials say.“A lot of it is direct financial assistance for students’ needs,” DeVries says. “But it also is increasing the number of counselors that we have available for them to take care of their mental health. It is increasing the number of advisors but also transitioning from just thinking of it as an academic advisor … to someone who, in my world, we would call more of a life coach – someone who says, ‘OK, here are your options, but you really want a career in X. And … How do we move your resume to the top of the pile once you’re in your senior year?’”
Regarding the need for mental health counseling, DeVries says stress and the lack of mental health services have been identified as big barriers to college graduation.
“There is a significant amount of data around this that says mental health challenges are the second reason that students drop out of college, behind finances,” DeVries says. It can also make the path to graduation longer as students drop out for a semester or two to try to cope with problems, she says.
Many students have faced challenges in early life, including grief, and mental and physical abuse. Others leave their psychological support system when they leave home to head to school.
“For some students who particularly may have experienced a higher level of trauma in their childhood, it makes it much more difficult to complete an academic program,” she says. “And if we can provide even more resources, then it becomes not just ‘Come here and muddle your way through,’ it becomes ‘We want you here and we’re going to give you everything you need from a mental health perspective so that you can complete (school) and be successful.’”
What does the gift mean for the typical student?
“No. 1, this fund enables us to provide far more resources to students from every background,” DeVries says. That includes career counseling and financial assistance to students from low-income and non-traditional backgrounds.
“Because of this money, we’ll be able to have scholarships for students who may have grown up in urban areas like Detroit,” she says. “And we can also provide them housing. So that students that we previously weren’t able to attract, now we can.”
The funding should also help students from middle-class families with more traditional resources.
“The families of middle-class, suburban students can have problems,” she says. “Their parents can lose their jobs too. They can have health issues. They have all kinds of obstacles they can run into.”
It is not atypical for students from middle-class families to struggle financially just as their student is heading into senior year.
“That is the most likely time when students run out of money,” DeVries says. “And we know that it is such a small amount that makes the difference.”
She says that $2,000 to $3,000 worth of tuition money is all that stops some students from graduating. “So these are not students who are trying to find $20,000,” she says. “It’s like $2,300.”
Von Washington Jr., executive director of community relations for The Kalamazoo Promise, says, “My hope is that these resources will be concentrated in a way that they will help students who have gaps that stop their progress. One of the things we know is that the more consistent a student can be in their pursuit of their education, and the fewer barriers, the better opportunity they have at success.”
Von Washington Jr.The Kalamazoo Promise is a scholarship program that provides up to 100 percent tuition for graduates of Kalamazoo Public Schools’ high schools.
Washington says he also hopes the Empowering Futures Gift can be provided “alongside other dollars and opportunities that are out there and that these dollars won’t be impacted by a student’s other (financial aid) package.”
Financial aid from one source is often reduced when a student receives money from other sources, he says. The Kalamazoo Promise, for instance, is considered a first-dollar scholarship. It is used to pay for the baseline needs of a student -- tuition and mandatory fees. If a student gets aid that is inflexible, it may reduce what he or she is already receiving. If a student receives other aid that is flexible, Washington says, that aid can be applied to needs to make him or her whole.
Speaking of scholarships and grants through the Empowering Futures Gift, Washington says, “We need these dollars to be alongside of the other dollars to assist students and help them with their journey. So our hope is that there’s going to be a distinct approach so when Promise scholarships and Pell grants and other scholarships are already on board helping students, these dollars can fill in gaps.”
$50 million to athletics
A lot of student-athletes arrive at the university envisioning a career in professional sports, DeVries says. “And so they haven’t put the same level of thought into a future career that a non-athlete college student has.”
So “intentional” career assistance will be big for the 300 to 350 student-athletes typically at WMU during any school year. The gift will help provide more significant career advising, she says, “So it’s not just about, ‘Here are the classes you need to get an accounting degree while you’re pursuing your soccer athletic career.’ It will be, ‘OK, you’d like to get a degree in accounting. But what would you like to do with it?”
She says the counseling will also teach students how to take what they’re learning on the field, in the locker room, and in the classroom to craft a pathway “to not just be an accountant, but to perhaps become an accounting Chief Financial Officer for a global NGO (non-governmental organization) one day.”
“Most of them started sports because they had a bigger vision for themselves, which is great and we love those dreams and ambitions,” DeVries says. “But we just know that very, very few of them will ever come to fruition. And so they need some more intentional assistance in terms of conceiving a career for themselves.”
Allocations are also likely to be made to help student-athletes get the career experiences they need. Student-athletes’ schedules can be very challenging, she says, making it difficult for them to get valuable internships and work experiences. “But we still want to get them career experiences,” she says. Some money will help fund those kinds of opportunities and help “our partners around the community recognize the value of their efforts even if it’s not in a full-time, summer-long capacity,” DeVries says.
$300 million for the medical school
The goal of the gift to the Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine in downtown Kalamazoo is to try to ensure that 50 percent of its students have near full-tuition scholarships. That would mean the average med school student would have nearly all of his or her tuition paid.
The Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine, shown at East Lovell and Portage streets in downtown Kalamazoo, will be a big beneficiary of the $550 million gift.“What that does is enable them to do another thing that this gift is concerned about – to go out and impact the community,” DeVries says.
She says students at the 10-year-old WMed are already involved in the community. During the COVID-19 pandemic, they volunteered to administer vaccinations and COVID tests. “But they all need to manage that currently against working or taking out significant loans or what have you,” DeVries says.
If they are freed up financially, they will have more time to participate in healthy lives in the Kalamazoo community, she says. The gift will help make that a reality.
“It also means that any student will now be able to see themselves in a doctor’s coat,” she says. “And they don’t have to look at the price of med school and say, “There’s just no way.’”
This gift also hopes to enhance the research capabilities of WMed by allowing it to build out the fifth and sixth floors of its facilities at Lovell and Portage streets. Those spaces will become research laboratories “which is a tremendous way to share with our medical students the research that is behind the medicine that they practice and perhaps inspire some of them to also do that research,” DeVries says. She says the research will address health care issues that affect people in Kalamazoo.
Questions yet to be answered
Asked how much of the Empowering Futures Gift money will be scholarships, DeVries says, “We have not made full determinations yet. I think that will vary by year because as we continue to attract students that have a higher level of need, the pure tuition scholarship portion may go up. But we may also find that we’re attracting more Detroit Promise students. It will be a year-by-year basis to identify where the greatest areas of impact are that this money may benefit.”
The Detroit Promise is a scholarship program available to qualified Detroit residents to bridge the gap between what they have been awarded in federal assistance, grants and other resources, and what they need to graduate college. Funded by the Michigan Excellence in Education Foundation, it was implemented in 2013 to help students seeking two-year degree and technical certifications. It was later expanded to help those seeking four-year college degrees.
DeVries says those students may not need tuition assistance but may have other needs such as assistance to pay for housing. Washington says a strategy will be needed for the Empowering Futures Gift to help those students. Detroit Promise scholarships are considered last-dollar scholarships. They are awarded to help students who have assistance but need additional help to finish.
Washington says he hopes the Empowering Futures Gift will reach “some of the deeper challenges that individual students face on a daily basis.” Those may include food insecurity, housing insecurity or the need for child care assistance. Those are issues that many colleges and universities try to tackle, he says, but find very difficult to resolve.
In the meantime, he says, “I’m excited by the gift. And the mere mention that there will be dollars in this gift to assist students in their journey is remarkable.”
Many times philanthropic gifts are provided to universities “and that is like the last line item if they say it at all,” he says.
Of the gift, DeVries says, “This is magnifying what we have already been committed to being for our students.”
There have already been strategies around campus aimed at student success, she says. But challenges remained. Officials have, for instance, been unable to find a different way to restructure housing costs for students or provide scholarships to directly help cover those costs.
How does she want college-bound high schoolers to envision WMU?
“That that is a university that is going to help me find my purpose and it’s going to support me all the way through my college career so I can get a job I love,” she says. “I will never be a number at Western Michigan University. I’m not a check-box on their enrollment list. I’m a person with unique contributions to bring and that’s a university that’s going to maximize me and what I bring to every table I get to sit at.”

WMU grateful for $100 million cash gift for med school

Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.