With no way of paying tuition, Calvin E. Tyler Jr. dropped out of college in his hometown, Baltimore, in 1963 before becoming a truck driver for UPS.
He was quickly promoted into management and ultimately worked his way into the company’s executive suite, serving as its senior vice president for U.S. operations as well as a director.
Nearly 60 years after he was forced to abandon his schooling, Mr. Tyler and his wife, Tina Tyler, have pledged $20 million to endow scholarships for financially needy students at the college he left, now known as Morgan State University.
In making the announcement this week, officials said they believed the gift was the largest a former student has ever made to a historically Black university.
“I want to provide scholarships for young bright people so that they can graduate, get their degrees, and come out of college debt-free,” Mr. Tyler said in an interview. “Going to college for four years and coming out with a degree and, at the same time, $80,000 to $100,000 in debt puts the person behind.”
The burden of loans is particularly severe among Black students at four-year colleges, with research suggesting they are more likely to borrow for school than their white peers, owing an average of $7,400 more when they graduate.
The couple’s philanthropy also comes as the long-term cost of college is becoming a front-and-center issue in Washington. President Biden has proposed expanding federal Pell grants for low-income students and canceling $10,000 in federal debt per student, with progressives in the Democratic Party pushing for more generous loan forgiveness programs.
David K. Wilson, president of Morgan State, said the Tylers were motivated in part by the realization that the coronavirus pandemic had exacerbated longstanding financial challenges for historically Black colleges and their students.
“Calvin knew that heavy student loan debt is crippling too many first-generation college students,” Dr. Wilson said. “The Tylers are doing their part to try and minimize that.” He added that the gift would fund financially needy students who also exhibited the grit and determination to succeed — a quality he said was partially responsible for Mr. Tyler’s ascent through the corporate ranks.
Mr. Tyler, now 78, enrolled at what was then called Morgan State College in 1961, studying business administration and accounting and dreaming of becoming the first in his family to receive a college degree.
But he did not have a scholarship and his parents could not afford to help pay tuition — his father worked for the telephone company. So he had to pay his own way.
“Because of finances I had to leave school and go to work,” Mr. Tyler said. He applied for a job at UPS partly because the company advertised that it promoted from within its ranks.
About two years after becoming a driver, he was moved into a management job, he said, ultimately living in eight cities for the company and moving upward until his retirement 34 years later, in 1998.
“Fortunately, UPS saw that I had the potential to take on bigger and bigger jobs. I was always willing with my wife to move out of our comfort zone,” he said. “That’s the type of person I am — I wasn’t afraid to take a chance.”
Tina Tyler was successful in real estate but repeatedly had to rebuild her career in new cities when the family uprooted, he said.
He sees himself now when he looks at students struggling to fulfill their college dreams, including those who are saddled with loans when they graduate. Mr. Tyler said that reducing the burden of student debt, which he called “way out of whack in this country,” is one of the primary goals of his scholarship.
The Tylers have long been among the university’s primary benefactors, and the $20 million pledge represents a $15 million increase from $5 million the couple had pledged to scholarships beginning 15 years ago.
The Calvin and Tina Tyler Endowed Scholarship Fund has already helped 222 Morgan State students, providing 46 full scholarships and 176 partial scholarships.
Dr. Wilson said the couple, who now live in the San Francisco Bay Area and Las Vegas, had informed him in January of their plans to increase the endowment to $20 million and expand the scholarship eligibility to students from outside the Baltimore area.
“I dropped the phone,” he said.
The scholarships differ from many others in that students with relatively low grade point averages are eligible.
“We concluded that the academic criteria for this scholarship should be 2.5 — not a 3.8, not a 4.0 — because we did not want to place the scholarship only in the hands of a select few students,” Dr. Wilson said.
Morgan State, initially founded in 1867 to train Methodist Episcopal clergy, is now a public university with enrollment of about 7,600 students.
The university was also the recent beneficiary of a $40 million gift from MacKenzie Scott, an author who was formerly married to the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. The donation was part of more than $400 million in gifts by Ms. Scott last year to colleges and universities, including those primarily serving Black and Hispanic students.
Mr. Tyler, looking back, says that even though he did not finish school, he was helped by everything he learned at Morgan State.
“That’s the way I feel about education, period,” he said.