MISSOULA — Tom Cotter traveled the world on a container ship, worked as a deckhand on a freighter, found employment with Boeing, and served as a U.S. Army special agent.
Somewhere along the way, he found time to earn his master’s degree from the University of Montana before launching a successful career as a financial planner – a job he held for 20 years before settling down in Palo Alto, Calif.
On Thursday, the university announced that Cotter had committed $11 million to the school, a transformative gift that represents the largest single scholarship pledge in UM’s 121-year history.
“I have great compassion for students and their ability to pay for their education,” Cotter said, speaking from his California home. “The costs are increasing faster than the rate of inflation.”
Cotter has a lifetime perspective on the changes that have come to higher education. Paying for college can serve as a deterrent to some while student debt may stand as a barrier to success after college. Jobs, he added, are harder to get.
It’s a far different world than when Cotter left his parent’s Townsend ranch in 1945, or earned his degree from UM in 1953.
“When I was discharged from the Army, most of the big companies had pretty good training programs,” he said. “They’ve cut way back on a lot of that. When I went with Merrill Lynch, they had seven months invested in me. Companies don’t put as much money into students as they used to.”
Cotter learned a solid work ethic on his parent’s ranch, which lacked running water, plumbing and electricity. He also learned the value of an education. In making his pledge, he hopes to open the door for more students, giving them a chance to better their future.
“My father and mother were generous people, almost to a fault,” he said. “I have such a love for Montana and the university, and I’ve always felt that students could be very good recipients of my money.”
Cotter’s gift will give UM a major boost in providing scholarships and recruiting students. President Royce Engstrom called it transformative.
The commitment will create an endowment generating nearly $500,000 annually in student aid. It fits with the university’s new Invest in Student Success campaign.
“That’s an effort between UM and the UM Foundation to raise funds over the next three years specifically dedicated to the topic of student success, and scholarships form a big part of that,” Engstrom said. “It’s a landmark gift for UM.”
Over the past two years, the university has made a concerted effort to ramp up its scholarship offerings based on both merit and need.
Recruiting students to campus has become more competitive between colleges. As costs increase, scholarship packages can serve as a powerful recruiting tool.
“It allows us to be more competitive to attract and recruit, but it also provides a vehicle for students to access an education they may not have otherwise had,” Engstrom said.
“(Cotter’s) desire is that the money be used for scholarships for students who demonstrate financial need,” Engstrom added. “He came from pretty humble beginnings, and it’s reflected in his wish to give back, and give students the wonderful opportunities he had through education.”
Cotter narrowly missed the window to enlist in World War II, so at 16 he dropped out of high school and joined the merchant marines, hauling cargo to the Marshall Islands and Okinawa, where the last large battle of the war took place.