St. John’s College Meets Winiarski Family Foundation Challenge Grant

June 17, 2021 | By Les Poling

Warren (Class of 1952) and Barbara Winiarski (Class of 1955) in 1974.

In September 2018, St. John’s College announced the start of its five-year, $300 million Freeing Minds capital campaign. As part of the campaign, the college also launched the $50 million Winiarski Family Foundation Challenge grant, which matched, up to $50 million, every cash gift or pledge to St. John’s with a gift to the endowment. Today, the college is proud to announce that it has met the match, which has been central to the campaign and to the college’s audacious vision over the last three years.

Bolstered by the Winiarski Family Foundation Challenge grant, St. John’s decreased annual undergraduate tuition from more than $52,000 to $35,000 per year. By shifting from a tuition-centered financial model to a philanthropy-centered one, the college has ensured that in each academic year since the campaign launched, no student has paid more than $35,000 in tuition—despite the actual cost of educating a student at St. John’s being approximately $60,000.

In short, the grant marked the beginning of a daring attempt to buck the inflated tuition trends of higher education, to make St. John’s more affordable to all, and to protect the integrity of the college’s esteemed Program of Instruction for future generations. At $50 million, the Winiarski Family Foundation Challenge grant also represents the largest gift in St. John’s history. With the match now met, the college has raised $245 million in less than three years, which represents 82 percent of its five-year Freeing Minds campaign goal.


Warren (Class of 1952) and Barbara Winiarski (Class of 1955) have a long history of giving to the college, inspired by the life-changing experiences each alum had at St. John’s. With their Family Foundation Challenge grant, the Winiarskis hoped to motivate other alumni and friends of the college to champion the Freeing Minds campaign—and in so doing, ensure the continued existence of what the New York Times calls “the most contrarian college in America.”

The challenge has worked wonders: Inspired by the opportunity to double their giving, the college’s alumni and friends gave generously and often. The Winiarski Family Foundation match itself received 17,246 individual gifts—96 percent of which were gifts of less than $5,000. The Winiarski initiative also encouraged larger gifts to the campaign, which in turn led to additional, generous financial aid to students. For example: the $10 million Pritzker Promise Bridge Program, which matches all Pell Grants dollar for dollar and offers academic support services to Pell Grant recipients at St. John’s.

Additionally, the groundswell of support for the Winiarski Family Foundation Challenge moved several large donors to contribute to sustainability initiatives and other areas of the Freeing Minds campaign. In one instance, two anonymous donors from the Class of 1969 donated $3.9 million to the college, which supported, in part, the installation of solar panels, LED light conversions, and energy efficiency upgrades.

Overall, the Winiarski Family Foundation Challenge grant helped stimulate an extraordinary spirit of giving that has facilitated one of the boldest campaigns in higher education.

“We knew $300 million was an ambitious goal for a college of our size when we launched the capital campaign, and the pandemic made that goal even more ambitious,” says Warren Spector (A81), chair of the capital campaign. “Thanks to Warren and Barbara’s extraordinary challenge and the outpouring of generosity from alumni and friends, we’ve raised more than 80 percent of our goal and are on track to double our endowment. As we near the completion of the campaign and raise the final $55 million, we’re increasingly focused on improving the student experience on campus and fulfilling the Freeing Minds promise.”


As recently as 2016, the existence of the St. John’s Program wasn’t guaranteed. “Before we launched the Freeing Minds campaign, we had a substantial deficit,” notes Ron Fielding (A70), chair of the St. John’s College Board of Visitors and Governors. But thanks in part to the success of the Winiarski Family Foundation Challenge and the ongoing Freeing Minds campaign, Fielding says, “This year the college achieved a balanced operating budget, and S&P affirmed our positive credit rating for the third straight year.”

As the campaign continues, the college—supported by its vibrant community of alumni and friends—seeks to continue expanding access to the Program for all who pursue it. “Not only will the campaign ensure the best and brightest students have the opportunity to become Johnnies regardless of their financial circumstances, it also ensures the financial future of the college for generations to come,” Fielding says.

St. John’s is devoted to maintaining an educational experience that rejects lecture courses and delivers small classes with intensive conversation; a reading list that shuns textbooks and rote memorization in favor of collaborative inquiry and the study of original texts by thinkers ranging from Homer, Plato, and Euclid to Bach, Einstein, Woolf, and DuBois. The Winiarskis share that devotion, and with only $55 million to go to complete the Freeing Minds campaign, their hopes are high.

“We believe deeply in the St. John’s College Program and value the impact it continues to have on our own lives,” say Warren and Barbara Winiarski. “With the Winiarski Family Foundation Challenge now met, we are confident that many more generations of students seeking this education will have the opportunity to realize it, and in doing so, that it will foster their respect for reasoning, questioning, and learning, as it did for us.”