Scholarship Program Begins This Summer To Benefit Students with Financial Need

When P. Roy Vagelos entered Columbia’s medical school in 1950, the average budget for one year of medical school was estimated to be $2,175, but if students lived frugally and spent less on room and board, bought used textbooks, and cut back on laundry and personal expenses, they might get by with $1,776. The same bulletin that itemized those costs—the 1949-50 Faculty of Medicine Bulletin—listed 25 scholarships available for students.

Dr. Vagelos was among the recipients of those scholarships to support his medical education. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and son of immigrants who operated a small luncheonette in New Jersey, he benefited from scholarships at both Ivy League universities. After graduating from what is now called Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons (VP&S) in 1954 and completing his training at Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. Vagelos conducted research at the NIH and later chaired the Department of Biological Chemistry at Washington University. He then joined Merck & Co. as head of Merck Research Laboratories, rising to the position of chairman and CEO of the company. He led the company during a period of growth and prominence; Fortune magazine named it the nation’s most admired corporation for seven consecutive years.

New Name for 250-Year-Old School

The December 2017 announcement of the latest gift from P. Roy Vagelos’54 and Diana Vagelos accompanied an announcement from Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger that the College of Physicians and Surgeons would be officially known as the Columbia University Roy and Diana Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons—VP&S for short.

“There are no more fitting names to have affiliated with our medical school than those of Roy and Diana Vagelos, who have made such tremendous contributions to medicine, education, and science,” said President Bollinger. “The new name recognizes all Roy and Diana have done, and will do, to transform education, medical research, and patient care at Columbia. Generations of students and patients will benefit from the generosity of their spirit and the sweep of their vision.”

Dr. and Mrs. Vagelos have long had ties to Columbia. They met in New York City in 1951 while Roy Vagelos was at VP&S and Diana Touliatou, who grew up in Washington Heights, was studying economics at Barnard College. She attended the High School of Music & Art, colloquially known as “the Castle on the Hill,” in Harlem (the school in 1984 merged into LaGuardia High School of Music and the Arts). The couple married in 1955 in a Greek Orthodox church in Washington Heights; both had parents who emigrated from Greece. Mrs. Vagelos currently serves as vice chair of the Board of Trustees at Barnard, where the school’s multi-use Diana Center building, completed in 2010, is named in honor of her leadership and support. Dr. and Mrs. Vagelos recently gave Barnard a gift to support creation of a teaching and learning center, which will help as Barnard becomes one of the first liberal arts colleges among its peers to institute a technology requirement. Their gift will fund the learning center’s computational science center, an endowed director position for this center, and an endowed chair in chemistry; they recently committed a matching gift of $10 million for scholarships.

Their giving to the University of Pennsylvania has supported undergraduate science education programs related to energy research, molecular life sciences, and life sciences and management and has funded a new chemistry lab. “We’ve even supported a project at my old high school in Rahway,” says Dr. Vagelos. “We are very dedicated to what we think is the most important thing: education.”

Because both Dr. and Mrs. Vagelos received scholarships to support their higher education, they have been giving back to scholarship funds for more than 50 years. At VP&S, that support most recently took the form of a challenge to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the medical school.

The 250th anniversary steering committee, chaired by Dr. Vagelos, identified the challenge as a fund-raising goal for the anniversary and named it the 250th Anniversary Scholarship Challenge for Endowed Financial Aid. It was launched in early 2017 with a $25 million gift from Dr. and Mrs. Vagelos, a gift used to match contributions of $50,000 or more for endowed scholarships to incentivize alumni and other friends of VP&S to join this effort.

Gifts from alumni and others soon followed, and Dr. and Mrs. Vagelos announced in December an additional gift of $225 million for a total of $250 million—$150 million of which was designated to endow the fund to help VP&S eliminate student loans for students with the most need. Scholarships from the endowment will support medical students who qualify for need-based financial aid, currently about half of the student body. 

At Revisit Day in April—when accepted students were invited back to VP&S for a second look before committing to one medical school—VP&S announced that all new students and those moving into their second, third, and fourth years for the 2018-19 year will have access to scholarships instead of loans if they qualify for need-based financial aid. 

In addition, for students graduating in 2018, VP&S announced plans to convert up to $5,000 in loans to scholarships. 

The 2017 gifts bring Dr. and Mrs. Vagelos’ total giving to medicine at Columbia to more than $310 million. A portion of the gift announced in December will support VP&S priorities of Columbia’s precision medicine initiative and basic science research and endow a professorship to honor the Vagelos family’s longtime doctor and friend, Thomas P. Jacobs, MD, professor of medicine.

“Roy and Diana Vagelos truly understand that having a scholarship fund of this magnitude puts medical school within reach of the most talented students, regardless of their ability to pay,” said VP&S Dean Lee Goldman, MD. Noting that high debt levels often drive medical students to pursue higher-paying specialties over less lucrative ones, such as internal medicine, pediatrics, or medical research, he added, “The income generated from this endowment will allow us to replace loans with scholarships for students with financial need, thereby allowing them to choose a medical specialty based on their true passion and highest calling, rather than on income potential.” 

Roy and Diana Vagelos have
given more than
$310 million
to Columbia’s
medical school.

“This idea of giving young people the kind of support that allowed us to pursue our own education at Penn, Barnard, and Columbia has been a driving force in our lives for some time,” said Dr. Vagelos. “We want P&S graduates to be able to do what they really love to do in their lives and in the medical profession, whether it’s clinical care or biomedical research. We’ve been lucky enough to have the chance to make a difference and we want to be sure future graduates will have the same opportunity.”

About $140 million of Dr. and Mrs. Vagelos’ total giving over the years has been structured to encourage others to make matching gifts, making the Vageloses responsible for about $450 million in philanthropy to the medical school.

In addition to the latest gifts, the couple gave $53 million to support the design and construction of a state-of-the-art medical and graduate education center that now bears their name. The Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center, an award-winning structure at 104 Haven, opened in August 2016.