The College of William & Mary has landed its biggest private gift ever - $50 million - as it begins a school-record $1 billion fundraising campaign.
The eye-catching number, announced Thursday night in Williamsburg, is the latest sign of public higher education's growing reliance on private philanthropy in an era of dwindling state support for colleges and universities.
Several big-name public schools have ongoing campaigns for $1 billion or more. UCLA is aiming for $4.2 billion, and the University of Michigan is seeking $4 billion. The University of Virginia finished a successful $3 billion effort in 2013.
Drumming up donations is difficult and costly, requiring sophisticated "advancement" teams and deep engagement with alumni. For private colleges, this is routine. But until recently, that has not necessarily been the case for public colleges, because they have counted more on annual appropriations from state legislatures.
Now, in an era of tight state funding and rising costs, prominent public institutions have few options if they want to stay competitive and continue to offer major discounts on tuition for in-state students.
"Philanthropy is the absolute lifeblood of the schools that are going to succeed in this century, public and private," William & Mary President Taylor Reveley said. "We're after it tooth and claw."
William & Mary, with about 8,400 students, said it is the smallest public university in the nation to embark on a $1 billion fundraiser. The campaign is an ambitious undertaking for a university without a medical or engineering school. Doctors and engineers are often crucial sources of higher education philanthropy.
As recently as 1980, Virginia supplied 43 percent of its operating revenue. Now, Reveley said, the state contribution is down to 12 percent.
The latest fundraising campaign, Reveley's first since he became president in 2008, was started in what is known as a "quiet phase" in July 2011, and it ramped up two years later. The original target in that phase was $600 million, but as donations mounted, the school set its sights higher.
As they made the announcement Thursday, William & Mary officials said they are more than halfway toward the target, with commitments for donations totaling more than $532 million. That includes what is now the school's biggest gift. A married couple, both alumni who wished to remain anonymous, pledged $50 million for scholarships to attract top law and business students and for other purposes.
The school's previous record for an announced gift was $23.9 million in 2013 from the Walter J. Zable estate, for athletic scholarships, stadium renovations and other purposes.
Tuition and fees at William & Mary total $19,372 for freshmen from Virginia. For those from out of state, tuition and fees are $41,072. Those prices don't include $10,978 for room and board or other expenses for books and travel.