Zetchers pledge $8 million for scholarships

Gift will help pave the way for need-blind admissions

Portrait photo of Ellen and Arnold Zetcher
Through their latest gift to Washington University, longtime supporters Ellen and Arnold Zetcher are helping make a college education more accessible for students with financial need. (Photo: Jason Elias)

Washington University alumnus and Emeritus Trustee Arnold Zetcher, BSBA ’62, knows firsthand the financial costs of pursuing higher education. The son of an auto parts and typewriter repair shop owner and the youngest of three children, Mr. Zetcher worked evenings and weekends selling clothing to supplement the financial aid and loans he received to attend the university. “I didn’t go to my first WashU football game until after I graduated because I was working on Saturdays,” he says.

Now Mr. Zetcher and his wife, Ellen, are ensuring that future Washington University students can afford their education. The couple has committed at least $8 million to endow the Arnold and Ellen Zetcher Scholarship for students with financial need across the university’s four undergraduate schools.

The scholarship’s broad recipient pool supports university leaders’ goal of transitioning to need-blind admissions, a policy Chancellor Andrew D. Martin outlined in his October 2019 inaugural address.

“Universitywide scholarship gifts like the Zetchers’—those that provide flexibility in allocating support to the best undergraduate students regardless of which school they attend—are key to helping us transform our admissions process,” Martin says. “It is the university’s moral responsibility not to let a student’s ability to pay tuition play a factor in admittance decisions. With the generosity of alumni and friends like the Zetchers, we will be able to move there in due course.”     

I don’t think I would have had the opportunities I had in my professional career were it not for my Washington University education. That’s one of the reasons Ellen and I are so excited about what we’re doing with this scholarship—giving talented students the same opportunity.

Emeritus Trustee Arnold Zetcher, BSBA ’62

As far as Mr. Zetcher is concerned, the gift represents an opportunity to provide talented young people with the same high-caliber educational experience he had at WashU—one that not only opened doors to a successful business career but also included a great deal of fun. He has fond memories of participating in the Bearskin Follies, a competitive musical revue written and performed by members of various fraternities and sororities. He also remembers being invited by legendary accounting professor and Olin Business School Dean Emeritus Bob Virgil, MBA ’60, DBA ’67, to “call him collect” if he achieved a $10,000 salary within five years of graduation.

“I made it right on the button, and I gave him a call,” Mr. Zetcher says. “I don’t think I would have had the opportunities I had in my professional career were it not for my Washington University education. That’s one of the reasons Ellen and I are so excited about what we’re doing with this scholarship—giving talented students the same opportunity.”  

Mr. Zetcher earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Olin in 1962. He worked his way up the corporate ladder to become chief executive officer of the luxury department store chain Bonwit Teller & Co., Kohl’s Food Stores, and the California-based furniture company John Breuner Co. Then he spent 20 years as president and CEO of Talbots, a leading retailer of women’s clothing. During his tenure, the company grew from 109 to more 1,000 stores worldwide, including locations in Japan, Canada, and the United Kingdom; sustained record profits; and diversified its brand to include children’s apparel. In 2000, he was named Retailer of the Year by the National Retail Federation.

Students working with a design form for an experimental fashion design course
Scholarships help ensure all qualified students can experience the life-changing benefits of a Washington University education, regardless of their financial situation. (Photo: Whitney Curtis)

After Mr. Zetcher retired from Talbots in March 2008, he and Ellen moved to Los Angeles to focus on thoroughbred breeding and racing. Mr. Zetcher’s lifelong passion for horse racing was stoked through trips to the Cahokia Downs and Fairmount Park race tracks near St. Louis during his college days. In 2010 and 2011, the Zetchers were leading owners in California, and in 2015, their horse Firing Line came in second in the Kentucky Derby to that year’s Triple Crown champion. Altogether, they have tallied nearly 150 first-place wins.

The Zetchers also have focused much of their time and energy on supporting WashU’s mission and vision. For many years, they have contributed to the Annual Fund at the Danforth Circle Chancellor’s Level—the highest level of recognition, representing gifts of $50,000 or more—and in 2003, they endowed a scholarship at Olin Business School. Mr. Zetcher has been a member of the school’s national council since 1995, and he served on the university’s Board of Trustees from 1996 to 2013 before being named an emeritus trustee. In addition, the couple has hosted numerous alumni and regional cabinet events.

Mrs. Zetcher, a Northwestern University graduate, has been impressed with the palpable sense of community she has experienced through her association with WashU—and its exceptional students. “The young people there, they are so committed,” she says. “They enjoy their experiences so much and are so enthusiastic.”

To recognize the couple’s latest gift, the university will rename the South 40 House on the South 40 residential area of the Danforth Campus the Arnold and Ellen Zetcher House. Mr. Zetcher is pleased to honor his parents’ name, given their status as longtime St. Louis residents. “It will be nice to have the name around as a tribute to my folks,” he says.

Above all, the Zetchers are excited their gift affords them the opportunity to improve educational equity. The prospect of making a Washington University education more accessible to low-income and first-generation college students is a top priority and a key motivator for them. “We get to play a life-changing role in so many young people’s lives, people who would not have had the opportunity to go to a school like Washington University,” Mr. Zetcher says. “It’s fabulous.”

Contact us to learn more about establishing a named scholarship at Washington University.