A Game-Changing Windfall

An unexpected bequest by an unassuming donor will help financially strapped students at Compton College and also allow the institution to create an endowment.

August 5, 2019
 
Oliver Conner

Oliver Conner was just starting to make his way in the world when he moved to Los Angeles from Texarkana, Ark., in 1961.

He was only 18 years old and still had a year of high school left to complete, but he wanted more than what his hometown could offer. Opportunities for upward mobility for black people were limited in Texarkana back then.

Conner eventually enrolled at Compton Community College, as it was then called, a two-year institution just south of downtown Los Angeles, and graduated on June 14, 1972. When he died in 2016 at age 72, he left much of his estate -- $9 million worth of property he’d methodically acquired over several decades -- to what is now called Compton College.

Compton announced in April that it had renamed a free tuition program for area high school graduates the Oliver W. Conner College Promise. The program, which originally guaranteed admission and waived enrollment fees for the first year of college for graduates from the neighboring Compton, Lynwood, and Paramount unified school districts, will now cover tuition for two years. Every student in the program will also now receive up to $400 for books, a new benefit made possible in part by Conner's gift.

The program's name change seemed fitting. Conner got a free education at Compton -- the institution didn’t start charging tuition until 1984 -- which he believed helped him create the life he’d imagined for himself. He wanted to use his financial success to do the same for current students.

“This is the first major gift to our institution, and it’s a game-changer,” said Keith Curry, president and CEO of the college. “It provides a significant opportunity for our promise program. It changes what we can provide to our students and allows us to provide more for our students.”

The school districts covered by the promise program are located in economically depressed areas of Los Angeles County. At least 25 percent of the households in those districts have incomes below the federal poverty level; two free years of college are very meaningful to students from poor families. It can also help them complete college sooner -- it takes most community college students an average of 3.3 years to graduate -- and give them incentive to pursue bachelor's degrees. The promise program covers the fall and spring semesters, and the shorter winter and summer terms, for students who enroll at Compton full-time.

At a time when the necessity and practicality of free college is being debated by academics, policy makers and the many candidates vying to become the next president of the United States, Oliver Conner’s story is illuminating -- and instructive.

The notion of the transformative power of a college education and the long-term benefits of graduating debt-free, still resonates today among first-generation college students, immigrants and students from low-income families -- the very people who could most benefit from free college and who increasingly represent the changing demographics of American college campuses. College debt can keep these students from completing their education, or from prospering if and when they do graduate. It can even threaten their financial security for the rest of their lives.

Meanwhile, overall enrollment at community colleges is shrinking, and state and federal education funding can't make up for the lost revenue. Compton's total enrollment for the 2017-18 academic year was 12,205, a 25 percent decline from the peak enrollment of 16,203 in 2010-11. As a result of these trends, seven-figure gifts to small, struggling community colleges have great significance.

Curry said Conner’s gift will enable Compton to pay for books for promise program students, as Conner stipulated in his will. It will also enable the college to offer them more support services, such as dedicated academic counseling.

“It will make local high school students want to come to Compton College,” Curry said.

Perhaps more importantly, it may prompt others to become benefactors of the college.

“We beg for people to give us money and it always falls back to ‘Oh, but this is Compton,’” Curry said. “It’s hard to get people to invest in the college. It’s a hard sell because they look at all the negative images of the city of Compton and the media stereotypes about it, the emphasis on the negatives and not the positives.”

He said he's constantly trying to convince potential donors, and even students, of the value of the college.

Although Conner clearly considered Compton worth his investment, the college came incredibly close to losing the donation due to a long and winding sequence of events.

Shortly after Conner died, one of his brothers and the wife of another brother went to Conner's business office and found and shredded Conner's original will, "along with many other documents," according to a petition filed by the college in July 2017 to admit the will in probate court. Fortunately for Compton, "A copy of the will was secretly preserved and sent to two of the decedent's longtime friends, and both have corroborated the story," the petition states.

The will had stipulated that in the event that Compton was no longer in existence at the time of Conner’s death, the portion of his estate willed to the college should instead go to the Crippled Children's Society of Los Angeles. That organization, since renamed AbilityFirst, advocates for disability rights and pioneered some of the first community services in the state for children and adults with disabilities.

It turned out that a friend of Conner's knew that his brother and sister-in-law had shredded the will. The friend also knew that copies of the will existed; she contacted Children's Hospital Los Angeles and told a company representative about the will. Hospital administrators contacted AbilityFirst, and a representative of the organization called Compton, informed Curry of the will and offered to share the proceeds if Compton joined AbilityFirst in an attempt to have the copy of the will admitted to probate court.

Curry declined the offer, and Compton petitioned the court on its own. Conner's brother and a nephew then contested the will on behalf of themselves and the other relatives, effectively petitioning the probate court not to validate the copy of will. Compton filed suit against the family soon after.

Last January, after two years of legal wrangling, Compton and Conner's relatives reached a settlement. The college agreed to give Conner's family members $3 million of the $9 million, and the family supported the plan to name the promise program after him. The family joined in the celebration of the bequest to Compton (right).

Starting Out

Conner didn’t need the "hard sell" that Curry says is now sometimes required to convince him to enroll at Compton. It was one of the first two-year colleges created in California, and it had a strong reputation in the 1960s. Conner's older brother, Jerry, whom Oliver followed to the West Coast, was already a student there. Oliver Conner arrived as the demographics of the student body was just starting to shift from overwhelmingly white to predominantly black. By the end of that decade, some people were referring to the institution as “California’s historically black college,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

Another shift occurred in subsequent decades, however, as the Latino student population surpassed that of black students. Latinos were 60 percent of the student body in the 2017-18 academic year, while African Americans were 25 percent, according to Compton College data.

Conner’s gift to the college arrived as the growing debt gap between white college graduates and graduates of color was raising concerns about the role of student loan debt in perpetuating income inequality and stifling generational wealth.

According to a Brookings Institution report on the racial disparity in student loan debt, black undergraduates owe $7,400 more on average in loans than their white peers upon graduation.

And student loan debt also had an “outsized effect” on Latino students, according to data compiled by Demos, a public policy think tank focused on social, economic and political equity issues.

Although Latino students at four-year, public colleges borrow at about the same rate as white students, “Latino borrowers are more likely to drop out because they or their families are more likely to face financial pressures than white borrowers,” according to a Demos fact sheet on Latino student debt and financial security.

“Higher dropout rates in turn cause Latino borrowers to have higher default rates, due to the pressures of loan repayment without the higher earnings from a degree,” the fact sheet states.

For community college students, who tend to be older than undergraduates at four-year institutions and have more financial responsibilities, such as paying for childcare and housing, the challenges and the barriers to completing college are sometimes even greater. Compton students are predominantly young adults; 62 percent were 24 years old or younger in the 2017-18 academic year, and 33 percent were working adults ages 25 to 44.

According to a study by the Pew Research Center, the number of poor undergraduate students in the U.S. has been steadily rising in recent decades. Their numbers grew at all higher ed institutions from 12 percent in 1996 to 20 percent in 2016. The highest percentage of those students were enrolled at public two-year institutions and private for-profit colleges during that period. For example, 13 percent of undergraduates at public community colleges came from households or families whose incomes were classified as poverty level in 1996, according to the study, but by 2016 the percentage had jumped to 27.

Oliver and Jerry were the eldest of eight children reared by a single mother who dropped out of school in eight grade but nonetheless insisted her children get a college education. (She eventually went back to high school and got her diploma, at age 48, and graduated in 1964 along with two of her daughters.)

“They were very poor,” said Jane Conner, wife of Jerry, who died 15 years ago. "They grew up in a four-room house with no electricity or running water.”

An uncle who lived in California had encouraged Jerry to come there. After Oliver relocated, younger brothers Gary and Lowry and sister Gwen followed suit. All four brothers graduated from Compton and went on to four-year colleges. Oliver attended California State University but didn’t complete his studies there.

The rest of the siblings also heeded their mother and earned college degrees. All eight of them became successful professionals in their own right, but Oliver’s story is particularly extraordinary.

He joined the U.S. Army after graduating from Compton and became a sergeant “in a fairly short length of time,” according to Mary Helen Reeves, one of his three sisters and the family’s historian. He was based at Fort Gordon in Georgia and served in Germany.

Conner was also a lover of history and geography and traveled the world during his time in and out of the military. He visited Britain, Mexico, Ethiopia and Japan, among other places. When he returned to the U.S. he settled down near Compton College, in Lynwood, and began mapping out his future.

Family members said Conner loved to work and at one point had three jobs. He worked for many decades as a ticket agent for Western Airlines, a Los Angeles-based airline that later merged with Delta Airlines, and kept that job for 40 years until he retired in 2008. He also worked as a sales clerk at Sears and as a real estate agent for a local broker. One of his favorite expressions was "Knowledge and money is power, and you have to work hard to get them."

At heart, though, he remained an ideas man with a strongly independent and entrepreneurial streak. He took courses to become a broker while he worked at the local real estate agency and eventually got his broker’s license and started his own business, Pyramid Properties, in 1979.

"He was a big dreamer and an optimist,” his sister-in-law recalled. He talked about buying a skating rink, among other investment ideas.

A lifelong bachelor, Conner was also “a bit of a miser and very frugal,” Reeves said. “He drove a 30-year-old car.”

“He was consumed about being successful and building a real estate empire,” she said. “Buying and selling property was a game to him, he loved it, truly, truly loved it.”

She said Conner would tell his siblings about his latest real estate deals during their weekly family conference call.

“It was always ‘I brought this this week, sold that last week, going to look at some new property next week,’” she recalled. “He was something else.”

“I knew he had amassed a lot of property and was always looking for the next deal,” she said, “but I didn’t know the totality of what he had.”

Conner’s real estate holdings totaled 20 properties in all, including single-family homes, apartment buildings and commercial property, all within the vicinity of the college.

“We were really surprised,” Reeves said, adding that they “had no idea” of the extent of his real estate holdings. “We were just impressed with what he could do, and had done, just with his wits.”

Conner made an impression on others as well, including Compton students he'd befriended and mentored long after he'd graduated. To his family's surprise, some of those young people showed up at his funeral service in California on April 23, 2016, Reeves said.

"They came to talk about him and share stories of his generosity and the ways he'd helped them, and the impact that he'd had on them," she said. "They said things such as, 'This is where I am now because of what Mr. Conner did back then.'"

The family members were touched. They knew about Conner's community involvement, "But we didn’t know how much he was involved in helping young people," Reeves said. "It wasn't something that he bragged about."

Next Steps

Compton administrators are still in the process of assessing the rental properties. They are also developing plans to establish an endowment.

“I think he had a great love for Compton and stayed in the neighborhood where he first started, and near the college that helped propel him to be successful,” Reeves said. “He didn’t see a reason to move from the neighborhood where he made his money.”

But Conner was not solely interested in accumulating wealth. He was also very civic-minded and was a longtime member and one time president of the Lynwood Rotary Club.

“He clearly wanted to give back to this institution,” Curry said. “It kind of validates the work that we’re doing here because sometimes you wonder, am I doing the work that’s right for these students? Now I no longer wonder if we’re doing what’s right for them.”

Conner’s gift was particularly meaningful “especially with all that we’ve been through,” Curry said, alluding to the nearly 12 years, from 2005 to 2017, that Compton could not operate independently after being stripped of accreditation by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges. It was the first public college in California to ever lose its accreditation. The state Legislature also simultaneously stripped the Board of Trustees of power.

Curry, who was provost of the campus during that period, is widely credited for guiding the college’s comeback.

In February 2016, Curry did a detailed PowerPoint presentation of the financial and student performance data of the college for the Lynwood Rotary Club. During and after the presentation, he had an exchange with one of the club members that would prove fortuitous. That member was Oliver Conner, who used the question-and-answer period of the meeting to grill Curry about why and when the college lost its accreditation. Unbeknownst to Curry, Conner had a personal stake in the future of the college -- Compton was among the beneficiaries named in his 1980 will.

"I had no clue. None," Curry said. "He never said anything about it. But he was the only one who asked questions. And it wasn't one or two questions, it was multiple questions."

After the meeting, the two men talked one on one.

"I told him he should come and visit the campus, and I gave him my business card," Curry recalled. Conner said he would visit.

They never talked again. Conner died two months later.

When Curry learned that Conner left his properties to the college, he was surprised -- and thrilled. Conner's relatives were also surprised; his will did not leave them anything. They contested the will because they contend, but could not prove, that he was in the process of revising the will written 36 years before he died. 

Last April, some 17 Conner family members attended a luncheon in his honor at Compton, where a formal announcement was made about the renaming of the program.

Reeves was among those who spoke about her brother's work ethic and ambition. In the audience were current Compton students who graduated from the high schools participating in the promise program.

"It is our hope that his legacy will live on for many years and be helpful to all of the students who will benefit from the Oliver W. Conner program of Compton College," she said.

Then and Now

When Compton first began charging tuition in 1984, the cost was $5 per credit hour, and the maximum a student could be expected to pay was capped at $50. Twenty years later, the per credit cost was $18 and the maximum cap was gone. (It was removed during the 1992-93 academic year.) The current per credit cost is $46, relatively inexpensive by most standards but still a hardship for many students. Some are struggling to put themselves through college or come from families with limited financial means to help them. Some experience regular food shortages and rely on the college’s food pantry. Others have problems finding affordable housing. In an annual assessment of basic needs security among college students, 59 percent of Compton students surveyed (compared to 50 percent statewide) said they had experienced food insecurity, 68 percent (compared to 60 percent statewide) said they experienced housing insecurity, and 17.8 percent (compared to 19 percent statewide) said they had experienced homelessness.

College administrators were distressed to learn that a handful of students were living in their cars. They decided that student housing was needed on campus and made that part of Compton’s master plan. It has not yet been funded, however. The irony is lost on no one that Conner left houses and apartment buildings to a college where some students are homeless. Curry said he's determined to fix this problem.

In the interim, Conner's relatives are pleased that his gift will make a lasting difference on campus.

“He used to talk about trying to help people move forward and helping young people break the cycle of poverty in their families,” Reeves said. “This will help more people than you can count, even after we’re long gone. The students can go to school and come out not owning anybody or having to pay for student loans.”

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