Jim Ayers, whose wealth comes from FirstBank, the third largest bank in Tennessee, created the Ayers Foundation to fund college scholarships for four counties in Tennessee. The foundation’s methods include paying the salary of guidance counselors, who closely track seniors to make sure they are accepted by schools and succeed in college.
In addition, the foundation also supports education research and medical research as well as local charities in Decatur County, Tennessee.
College Preparation Programs
The Ayers Foundation was founded by Jim Ayers, who created FirstBank, the third largest bank in Tennessee. Ayers explains his philanthropy by saying he owed his success to a college education, but that a high-school friend of his couldn’t afford college, and “was forced to take a job that was neither intellectually stimulating nor well paid.” After becoming successful, “I decided what I could do to help was to guarantee that no child from my home town of Parsons, Tennessee would be denied a college education to lack of funds.” 1
The Ayers Foundation’s college preparation program costs about $4.7 million annually and involves paying for a guidance counselor at eight high schools in four Tennessee counties. The counselor, who is added to the staff, supplements and does not replace the work of other guidance counselors. Ayers-funded counselors try to come up with a career plan for every student in the high school, and are available at all times to answer calls or texts. They also help with social services for the poor, such as helping students get mental health services, food, or transportation. “The goal is not to name-check elites,” writes Hechinger Report author Laura Pappano, “it’s to educate local students for living-wage jobs.” 2
College graduation rates in areas the Ayers Foundations serves have risen from 20-25 percent in 2000 to 80-85 percent today. “It’s not the money that makes the most difference, it’s the assistance,” said long-time U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN). The Ayers-supported counselors, he said, are “the secret sauce of a higher college graduation rate across the board.” 3
In 2018, the Ayers Foundation, collaborating with the Scarlett Family Foundation and the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, contributed $600,000 to create new programs for training principals as part of a $3.5 million initiative of then-Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) in increasing the quality of the state’s principals. 4
In 2005, the Ayers Foundation donated $5 million to West Tennessee Healthcare in Jackson, Tennessee to create the Ayers Children Medical Center, the largest pediatric medical facility between Memphis and Nashville. The center received $1.7 million fro the Ayers Foundation in 2018, the largest single grant of the foundation. 5
Another major beneficiary of the Ayers Foundation is Belmont University, which in 2016 received a $15 million grant from the foundation for scholarships and received an additional $1.5 million from the foundation in 2018. The university renamed its largest academic building the “Janet Ayers Education Center” to honor the gift. 6
- “Meet The Ayers,” https://theayersfoundation.org/about/meet-the-ayers/ (accessed February 16, 2021)
- Laura Pappano, “How To Raise Rural Enrollment In Higher Education? Go Local,” The Hechinger Report, December 4, 2020, https://hechingerreport.org/how-to-raise-rural-enrollment-in-higher-education-go-local/ (accessed February 16, 2021).
- Adam Friedman, “Ayers Foundation Celebrates 20 Years,” Jackson Sun, November 13, 2019.
- Jason Gonzales, “Haslam Unveils $3.5M Plan To Help Principal Leadership Skills,” Nashville Tennessean, March 21, 2018.
- Ayers Foundation 2018 Form 1990. “Ayers Children’s Medical Center,” https://www.wth.org/services/ayers-childrens-medical-center/ (accessed February 16, 2021).
- Janet Hefner, “Ayers Foundation Donates $15 Million to Belmont To Support Endowed Scholarships,” press release from Belmont University, May 4, 2016, https://news.belmont.edu/ayers-foundation-donates-15-million-to-belmont-to-support-endowed-scholarships/ . Ayers Foundation 2018 Form 990.