These Are the Largest Donations to U.S. Colleges and Universities

Donations from alums, philanthropists, and billionaires are piling up at institutions across the country. Here's how the colleges and universities are spending the money.
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Updated on June 6, 2023
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  • In the last two years, multimillion-dollar donations have poured into higher education.
  • In 2018, Johns Hopkins University received what is believed to be the largest donation to a college: $1.8 billion.
  • Stony Brook University, meanwhile, recently announced an unrestricted $500 million donation.
  • McPherson College in Kansas received a $500 million donation from an anonymous donor.

Higher education is no stranger to donations from alums, philanthropists, and billionaires hoping to advance an institution they believe will improve the lives of students — and change the world.

In a trend of rising costs and lower enrollment, multimillion-dollar donations can give colleges the boost to not only survive but thrive.

Here are some of the biggest donations over the past year to colleges and universities for research, business, scholarships, and even stem cells in space. Then, explore some of the biggest donations of all time to higher education.

Recent Notable Donations to Colleges and Universities

Stony Brook University: $500 Million

Date: June 1, 2023

Donor: The Simons Foundation

The Simons Foundation, founded by Marilyn and Jim Simons, gave the unrestricted gift for the university to use wherever it sees fit. The university said it plans to use the funding for scholarships, endowed professorships, research, and clinical care.

New York City also recently selected the university to be the anchor institution for the New York Climate Exchange, a climate research hub and campus on the city's Governors Island.

"As a Stony Brook graduate, I know firsthand the role that a quality education plays in the trajectory of one's life," said Marilyn Simons. "I am proud of the education I received there. Jim and I want to ensure that Stony Brook continues to serve its students with the highest level of educational excellence and with world-class resources.

The foundation's gift will also help give those from underserved communities the opportunity to reach their full potential. We look forward to seeing this institution continue to thrive."

University of Chicago's Business School: $100 Million

Date: April 28, 2023

Donor: Ross Stevens

Ross Stevens celebrated the business school Ph.D. program's 100th anniversary in April by donating $100 million. The gift will increase stipends, research support, and create "Stevens Fellowships."

It will also implement wellness and professional development programs and support systems for Ph.D. students and alums.

"I believe that, over time, the quality of a business school's PhDs determines the quality of its faculty, which, in turn, determines the quality of the school itself," Stevens said.

Harvard University: $300 Million

Date: April 11, 2023

Donor: Kenneth Griffin

Harvard in April announced the hedge fund billionaire alum's $300 million donation to its Faculty of Arts and Sciences, home to the university’s undergraduate program as well as all of its Ph.D. programs plus athletics, museums and libraries. The school will be renamed the Harvard Kenneth C. Griffin Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

In total, Griffin has donated over $500 million to the university.

"Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences is committed to advancing ideas that will shape humanity's future, while providing important insight into our past," Griffin said. "I am excited to support the impactful work of this great institution."

Columbia University: $175 Million

Date: March 6, 2023

Donors: Roy and Diana Vagelos

Announced in March, the donation will create the Vagelos Institute for Biomedical Research Education. The university said that the institute will allow Ph.D. students to pursue creative, disruptive ideas by creating an academic model that encourages and accelerates risk-taking. The couple is splitting their gift into a $125 million endowment for Ph.D. student funding and a $50 million gift to support aspiring physician-scientists in biology and clinical medicine.

"Diana and I each vividly recall the difference that financial support made in creating a sense of freedom and instilling the confidence to pursue our passions early in our lives," Roy Vagelos said. "We want to give others this same freedom by removing the obstacles facing researchers and scientists in training."

Harvard Medical School: $75 Million

Date: Feb. 13, 2023

Donor: Ernesto Bertarelli

Harvard announced in January that the donation from the Swiss biotech executive, entrepreneur, and philanthropist will support therapeutic science and create the Bertarelli Building. The building will be a skylit atrium for convening and collaborating.

"It has been my honor to have been a partner of the School for over two decades," Bertarelli said in a press release, "and I am delighted to continue to support the HMS community in its important work by helping to modernize these landmark facilities to keep pace with therapeutics innovation."

Purdue University's Business School: $50 Million

Date: Feb. 13, 2023

Donor: The Dean and Barbara White Foundation

Purdue in February announced that the donation will launch the Bruce White Undergraduate Institute within the business school, named after the former alum, trustee member, and longtime benefactor who died on Jan. 19. The gift will also help grow enrollment and create a revised curriculum at the intersection of business and technology.

"The naming after Bruce White, one of the most prominent Boilermakers our university has ever known, is particularly meaningful to us," President Mung Chiang said in a press release. "This gift ensures Purdue will educate exceptional undergraduate business students who will create and grow competitive businesses in a technology-driven, free-market economy."

University of Virginia: $100 Million

Date: Jan. 20, 2023

Donors: Paul and Diane Manning

The donation announced in January will fund a biotechnology research hub for research practices like cellular therapy, gene therapy, and drug delivery via nanotechnology, according to the university. The University of Virginia (UVA) hopes to create a new research triangle in Virginia akin to the North Carolina Research Triangle — Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill.

"We live in an incredibly exciting time of discovery in medicine — and the Manning Institute will ensure UVA remains at the forefront of research and patient care," said UVA President Jim Ryan, according to UVA Today. "Paul and Diane Manning's extraordinary gift will mean new treatments and therapies for the patients who need them most, and I'm immensely grateful for their generosity and vision."

University of St. Thomas Athletics: $75 Million

Date: Jan. 17, 2023

Donors: Lee and Penny Anderson

According to St. Thomas, the donation announced in January is one of the largest college athletics donations in U.S. history. The donation will create a new arena for hockey, basketball, and community events and is set to break ground in 2024. St. Thomas went from a Division III school directly to Division I sports competition in 2021.

"For the first time ever, Minnesotans have a private university option for D-I caliber education and athletics, and we're proud to be part of making this vision a reality for young people in Minnesota and beyond," said Lee Anderson.

University of Utah's Engineering College: $50 Million

Date: Jan. 10, 2023

Donors: John and Marcia Price

The university announced the donation in January. It will use $32.5 million for scholarships, lab equipment, and educational initiatives at the newly named John and Marcia Price College of Engineering. The remaining $17.5 million is going toward the new six-story John and Marcia Price Computing and Engineering Building set to break ground in 2024.

"Marcia and I want to help ensure that opportunity for this and future generations," said John Price. "Our gift to the College of Engineering is an investment, to provide education at the highest level of excellence, and to meet the engineering and computing needs for local and global demand."

University of California, San Diego: $150 Million

Date: Sept. 6, 2022

Donor: T. Denny Sanford

The University of California, San Diego (UC San Diego) announced that the September donation will create the Sanford Stem Cell Institute and three new programs surrounding stem cell research and space. It's the largest gift ever to UC San Diego.

"Denny's previous generosity spurred discoveries in stem cell research and medicine at UC San Diego that are already benefiting countless patients around the world," said Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla. "His most recent gift adds to our portfolio of stem cell research conducted in Earth's orbit that will help us better understand the progression of cancer cells and aging."

Top 11 Biggest Donations to Colleges and Universities

Stony Brook University: $500 Million

Date: June 1, 2023

Donor:The Simons Foundation

Oregon Health and Science University: $500 Million

Date: June 24, 2015

Donors: Phil and Penny Knight

The Nike co-founder and his wife pledged $500 million as part of a $1 billion fundraising challenge to support early detection of lethal cancers. The university used the total $1 billion to build a new research facility and cancer care clinics for expanded clinical trials.

"Penny and I have total confidence in Brian Druker and the entire OHSU Knight Cancer Institute team to put a stop to a disease that touches each of our lives," said Phil Knight.

"We are more convinced than ever that cancer will meet its match at OHSU, and we are proud to play a role in this history in the making."

University of Oregon, Twice: $500 Million

Date: July 6, 2021 and Oct. 18, 2016

Donors: Phil and Penny Knight

The Nike co-founder and his wife first donated $500 million to the university in 2016, which created the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact. The building, completed in 2020, was able to expand after the second gift by creating more faculty positions and a second building.

"There is no greater vote of confidence in our success than the Knights' decision to double their investment in the Knight Campus. This gift will help provide opportunities for students, faculty, the university, and our state to reach new levels of discovery, innovation, and collaboration," the university wrote in a 2021 statement.

"Please join us in thanking the Knights and the scores of individuals who helped make this University of Oregon's moonshot of a dream into a stunning reality."

McPherson College: $500 Million

Date: Nov. 4, 2022

Donor: Anonymous

The small, Kansas liberal arts college with 30 degree programs known for its automotive restoration technology degree received a commitment in November from an anonymous donor, which will fund engineering programs, health sciences programs, and student debt relief. The donor will match $2 for every dollar donated up to $500 million.

"I am indescribably grateful to our anonymous donor for giving McPherson College the resources to implement our expansive strategic plan and truly create the student-first campus of the future," McPherson College President Michael Schneider said. "We must reimagine the campus, just like we've reimagined the workplace in the last two years, and do it without burdening our students with more debt."

Harvard University: $500 Million

Date: Dec. 7, 2021

Donors: Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan

The donation, spread over 15 years, went to create an institute for artificial intelligence and neuroscience named after Zuckerberg's mother. The donation created 10 new faculty positions, new computing infrastructure, and more student resources at all levels.

"Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg have demonstrated a remarkable commitment to promoting discovery, innovation, and service at Harvard and other academic institutions around the United States," said President Lawrence S. Bacow.

"From supporting the study of COVID-19 treatments and advancing literacy research, to boosting public service opportunities for undergraduates, they have shown a genuine commitment through their work at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and beyond to curing disease, improving lives, and encouraging others to serve."

Western Michigan University: $550 Million

Date: June 8, 2021

Donors: Anonymous

The anonymous alums' donation gave $200 million to the university, $300 million for the medical school, and $50 million for the athletics department. According to the university, the donors' gift reflected their belief in diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education.

"Like Western, our donors are committed to a future that truly provides opportunity for everyone to advance," said President Edward Montgomery.

"In order to empower our future, we must break down the barriers created by historic inequities. This gift is an important step in leveling the playing field and putting quality education in reach for students from historically underrepresented populations."

California Institute of Technology: $600 Million

Date: Oct. 29, 2001

Donors: Gordon and Betty Moore

Intel co-founder Gordon Moore and his wife, Betty, donated half of the $600 million, and their foundation donated the other half. The funds were set apart for education and science programs at Caltech. The Moores' donation distributed $300 million across five years, while the foundation's was spread across a decade.

"Caltech has a unique ability to do multidisciplinary work — partly because of its size and partly because of its history. It is described as being a national treasure and it certainly is," said Gordon Moore. "The education I received there has served me well. We are hoping this gift will position the institute well as it moves forward."

Columbia University and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital: $700 Million

Date: Nov. 15, 2017

Donors: Florence and Herbert Irving

Florence Irving and her late husband donated to advance cancer research and clinical care. They donated more than $900 million total to both institutions over three decades. In 2016, the two institutions renamed the shared medical campus, "Columbia University Irving Medical Center" and "NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center."

"Herbert and I have always been proud to help the terrific doctors at Columbia and NewYork-Presbyterian," said Florence Irving.

"It meant everything to him to be able to support world-class research and caregiving that makes a difference in people's lives. I am honored, as he always was, to be associated with these great institutions and the special people who make them what they are."

California Institute of Technology: $750 Million

Date: Sept. 26, 2019

Donors: Stewart and Lynda Resnick

The donation from the philanthropist couple went to support sustainability research through interdisciplinary work in physical sciences, life sciences, and engineering. The institute also pledged to build a 75,000-square-foot building in their name to serve as a hub for sustainability research and laboratories.

"In order to comprehensively manage the climate crisis, we need breakthrough innovations, the kind that will only be possible through significant investment in university research," said Stewart Resnick. "Science and bold creativity must unite to address the most pressing challenges facing energy, water, and sustainability."

Stanford University: $1.1 Billion

Date: May 4, 2022

Donors: John and Ann Doerr

This donation announced in May 2022 created Stanford's first new school in 70 years, the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability. The school focuses on studies including climate change, sustainable cities, food and water security, and human health and the environment.

"This new school will accelerate scholarship and solutions to pressing challenges facing the earth, climate, and society," John Doerr tweeted. "It is the result of visionary thinking about the role of the university and our shared ambition to make a measurable impact on the climate crisis."

Johns Hopkins University: $1.1 Billion

Date: Nov. 18, 2018

Donors: Michael Bloomberg

Michael Bloomberg, a Johns Hopkins alum, donated to permanently increase undergraduate financial aid at the university.

"Denying students entry to a college based on their ability to pay undermines equal opportunity," Bloomberg said. "It perpetuates intergenerational poverty. And it strikes at the heart of the American dream: the idea that every person, from every community, has the chance to rise based on merit."