Retired cable TV mogul H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest said the bulk of the Lenfest Foundation grant would go to the mayor's education office for its PhillyGoes2College program, with a smaller portion allotted for researching the best ways to increase graduation rates.
Census figures from 2009 show that only 23 percent of Philadelphians have at least a bachelor's degree - far below cities like San Francisco and Boston, where more than half the residents have undergraduate diplomas.
"The city will not remain economically competitive with other cities unless that percent increases," Lenfest said at a City Hall news conference.
Mayor Michael Nutter set a goal when he took office in 2008 of doubling the percentage of college graduates within five to 10 years and halving the 45 percent high school dropout rate in five to seven years. The college degree rate has inched up 2 percentage points since then.
"There is no reason we should not be able to accomplish these goals," Nutter said Monday.
Among his education initiatives is PhillyGoes2College, an office at City Hall that aims to be a one-stop-shop for any resident wanting to get a degree, from choosing a college to helping with financial aid forms. The effort has yielded a 12 percent increase in aid applications and an additional $194 million in financial help, Nutter said.
The "Returning to Learning" program gives city employees a 25 percent discount on tuition at seven local colleges. Nutter also secured 272 full scholarships for Philadelphia residents at three colleges; his goal is 1,000.
The diploma challenge is made more difficult by the city's low literacy and high poverty rates. But it is helped by retaining graduates from the area's 101 colleges and universities.
About 48 percent of nonnative Philadelphians reported staying in the region after graduation this year, compared with 29 percent in 2004, according to a study released this month by Campus Philly, a nonprofit designed to attract and retain college students.
Joseph Morales, a 23-year-old member of the City Year service organization, thanked Lenfest for the gift at the news conference. Morales said he "survived" the tough halls of Olney High School in Philadelphia to earn a degree from Pomona College in California.
Now, he mentors Olney students and hopes eventually to teach there, inspiring others to follow in his footsteps.
"If I made it," Morales said, "I know that many of them can, too."