This story has been updated.

The University of Texas at San Antonio and San Antonio College received the largest donations in their histories from billionaire philanthropist and author MacKenzie Scott, who announced Tuesday that she and her husband, Dan Jewett, had gifted $2.74 billion to 286 organizations.

The $40 million gift to UTSA and the $15 million gift to SAC demonstrate Scott’s continued commitment to higher education and to giving away most of her wealth. In a previous round of giving in December, she donated $20 million to Palo Alto College, which was the largest donation in that college’s history. Scott was married to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and received 4% of the company’s stock when the couple divorced in 2019.

In the Medium blog post where she announced the latest round of gifts, Scott wrote that she and her team selected organizations built of people whose “service supports and empowers people who go on to support and empower others.”

“Higher education is a proven pathway to opportunity, so we looked for 2- and 4-year institutions successfully educating students who come from communities that have been chronically underserved,” Scott wrote.

Other San Antonio institutions awarded gifts by Scott include the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center and the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, which received $1 million each, and the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures (NALAC), which is headquartered on the West Side of San Antonio. It received $6 million.

UTSA President Taylor Eighmy said the university plans to announce in the fall the details of a new program funded by Scott’s gift that will support student success and help them graduate with as little debt as possible. The $40 million has already been invested and is generating interest.

“An unrestricted gift of $40 million is unheard of, and the fact that we can make the best use of this to support our students is really powerful, powerful,” he said. “We are in the process right now of refining what the exact use of these dollars will be, but rest assured we are designing something that’s going to last for perpetuity and provide benefit for many, many, many, many years to come.”

With finances one of the most common obstacles to attending college, the university may use some of the $40 million to expand UTSA’s Bold Promise program, said Kimberly Andrews Espy, provost and vice president for academic affairs. The program covers eight consecutive semesters’ tuition for incoming fall first-year students who qualify as low- to middle-income.

The Alamo Colleges District, which includes SAC, offers a similar program for high school seniors who graduate from 25 high schools in San Antonio and are Bexar County residents. The Alamo Promise program is a “last-dollar” scholarship initiative that covers students’ tuition and fees for up to three years or until they complete an associate degree.

Both UTSA and SAC serve large Latino populations, a theme Eighmy noticed among the recipients of Scott’s philanthropy. The other University of Texas institution to receive a donation from Scott was the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

“We’re all Hispanic-Serving Institutions,” Eighmy said. “We’re all deeply committed to student success. We all have demonstrative track records in focusing on student success with intentionality.”

The federal government defines Hispanic-Serving Institutions as accredited, nonprofit institutions of higher education that grant degrees and where at least 25% of full-time, undergraduate students are Latino. Excelencia in Education, a nonprofit dedicated to accelerating Latino student success, awarded UTSA the Seal of Excelencia last year, a certification recognizing the university’s commitment and ability to serve Latinos, who make up 57% of its student population.

Espy said the Excelencia seal exemplifies the impact and action Scott and her team considered as part of their vetting process for organizations that received donations.

Additionally, the $40 million gift will have a significant impact on San Antonio, where the income and education inequities are “profound,” Eighmy said. About 26% of San Antonio residents 25 years or older had earned a bachelor’s degree or higher as of July 2019, compared with 32.1% of U.S. residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Almost 18% of the city’s $1.5 million residents live in poverty, well above the U.S. rate of 10.5%.

“They know that we are part of the solution for our community going forward,” he said, “and they have stepped forward to invest in our mission and purpose.”

The $15 million gift to San Antonio College represents a second victory for the community college this year. The college won the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence last month, becoming the state’s first school to receive the prestigious award, which recognizes the nation’s highest-achieving community colleges. The award also came with a $600,000 prize.

“Just as we are catching our breath after being named the nation’s number-one community college, this donation takes us to yet another level of amazement, excitement, pride — and gratitude,” President Robert Vela said in a statement.  “This investment in SAC’s mission of service will have an enormous long-term impact on the future of our students and the San Antonio community.”

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.