When the billionaire hedge fund manager Kenneth C. Griffin was a sophomore at Harvard, he was betting on convertible bonds in his dorm room — thanks to a satellite dish he had quietly hooked up on the roof — while his fellow students were going to classes.
Twenty-eight years later, that formative experience will be paying dividends for his alma mater.
(Read more: Buffett has big lead in bet against hedge funds)
Mr. Griffin announced Wednesday night that he was donating $150 million to Harvard, the biggest single gift to the college ever. The money will largely go to the college's financial aid program as Harvard seeks to blunt criticism that higher education has become the province of the 1 percent.
"This was an opportunity to make a statement about Harvard as one of the most important higher education institutions in the world," Mr. Griffin said in an interview.
Other colleges have drawn bigger individual donations: Michael R. Bloomberg pledged $350 million to Johns Hopkins University last year, the latest in a one-man $1.1 billion capital campaign. But Harvard has long been the powerhouse of the university fund-raising circuit, with its latest campaign aiming to collect a staggering $6.5 billion.
Thursday's donation is part of that initiative, which kicked off with $2.8 billion already in the bank.
"I was absolutely thrilled," Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard's president, said in an interview. "Financial aid has been one of my highest priorities as president."
The gift is also the largest by Mr. Griffin, the founder and chief executive of the Chicago-based investment giant Citadel. With an estimated net worth of $4.4 billion, Mr. Griffin has been previously known more as a benefactor of the arts and a supporter of conservative politicians like Mitt Romney.
But his latest donation will support one of Harvard's most ambitious initiatives. About $140 million of the donation will go toward creating 200 Griffin scholars and providing matching funds for a new program aimed at creating 600 new scholarships. (The remaining $10 million will endow a new professorship at the Harvard Business School.)
In return, Harvard will rename its college's financial aid office after Mr. Griffin.
Though Mr. Griffin did not receive financial aid when he attended Harvard, he nevertheless had a benefactor, his grandmother, who helped pay for his education. That experience, he said, instilled in him a recognition that others needed help to pay for a college degree.
"I was lucky to have a relative in a position to do that," he said. " A lot of kids don't."