By Svea Herbst-Bayliss
BOSTON (Reuters) - Billionaire investor Kenneth Griffin, who started his hedge fund in his dormitory room at Harvard University, is donating $150 million to his alma mater in what will be the largest single gift ever made to the Ivy League school.
Griffin, who graduated from Harvard 25 years ago, said the gift will mainly support the university's financial aid program, benefiting as many as 800 undergraduate students every year.
The donation should be "an investment in the next generation of leaders as we continue to break down barriers to an outstanding education," Griffin said in a statement.
After beginning to bet on convertible bonds while living at Cabot House, Griffin went on to found Chicago-based Citadel LLC, one of the world's biggest and most successful hedge funds. Last year, Griffin's net worth was estimated at $4.4 billion, according to Forbes.
For Harvard, already the richest university in the world with a $32.7 billion endowment, the donation comes at a time when ever more students are relying on aid to help pay the way.
The high cost of a college education in the United States has saddled many young people with thousands of dollars in debt and sparked criticism that only the wealthy can afford a top-notch education.
The cost of one year at Harvard can be as much as $65,150, and currently 60 percent of undergraduates receive financial aid, the school said in the statement. The university allows qualified students whose families earn less than $65,000 a year to attend for free.
"Ken Griffin's extraordinary philanthropy is opening Harvard's gates wider to the most talented students in the world, no matter their economic circumstances," Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust said in the statement.
Until now, Griffin has been known more as a benefactor of the arts, having given $19 million to help build the Modern Wing at the Chicago Art Institute, where he and his wife had their first date.
During his career, the normally media-shy Griffin has often ranked among the hedge fund industry's best-paid managers. He was one of five billionaire managers asked to testify before Congress about the industry in 2008.
The money will establish 200 Griffin scholars and provide matching funds for a new program designed to create 600 more scholarships.
In September, Harvard launched a campaign to raise $6.5 billion in donations with Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft Corp, who dropped out of Harvard but now ranks as the world's second-richest person, joining in a kick-off event.
Harvard counts former Presidents John Adams and John F. Kennedy, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Goldman Sachs Chief Executive Officer Lloyd Blankfein and countless other hedge fund managers among its alumni.
(Reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss; Editing by Jan Paschal)