A recent analysis by Moody’s found 70% of the wealth in higher ed is concentrated among 20 top institutions, and though charitable giving is expected to increase 3.7% this year, most of those funds are similarly concentrated.
For the rest of the institutions in the space, these statistics can be daunting. How can smaller institutions get on the radar of individuals, foundations and corporations looking to make an impact through giving? We reached out to the heads of three major foundations to get their input on the types of things they’d like to fund in higher ed, and the types of returns they’re expecting on their investment.
There are recurring themes. For example, funders want to see institutions working to narrow racial attainment gaps and better promote equitable access to a quality education. An emphasis on free exchange of ideas, even those which may be unpopular, is also attractive. Additionally, donors want to give to scale, more than individual programs or institutions, and consortiums or organizations which represent multiple institutions seem to provide the biggest bang for their buck.
Why do you see higher ed as a worthwhile recipient of your giving?
John Hardin (Director of University Relations, Koch Foundation): “Education is an opportunity for people to discover their aptitudes and develop their interests in a way that can help them transform their lives and accomplish incredible things."
“Charles Koch credits his own success to the educational opportunities he has had throughout his life, and he’s committed to provide similar opportunities to as many people as he can. Universities play an important role in helping students to realize their potential, and when they do they improve their lives and the lives of others, society benefits, and new ideas and innovations flourish.”
Travis Reindl (Senior Communications Officer, Postsecondary Success, US Policy, Advocacy, and Communications (USPAC), Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation): “We seek to ensure that all people – especially those with the fewest resources – can access the opportunities they need to succeed in school and life. And this absolutely includes education after high school, which has served as a bridge to opportunity for millions of Americans and is critical for our social mobility and economic development. We know that people with post-high school credentials are more likely to be employed, earn more, be civically active, and even enjoy better health outcomes – in other words, enjoy a better quality of life."
“But we also know that the opportunity to earn a credential depends on race or socioeconomic status – and it shouldn’t. A high income student is five times more likely to have a degree by 24 than a low-income student. Gaps in degree attainment by race haven’t narrowed in a generation and in some cases, they are widening."
“And this is happening at a time when our economy is demanding more educated workers, not fewer. Leading labor economists tell us that at current enrollment and completion rates, we face a shortfall of up to 11 million credentialed workers by 2025."
“That is why we are working with and investing in a wide range of institutions and organizations on strategies designed to help many more students get to and through college and to eliminate gaps in attainment according to race and income. Closing those gaps is an economic and moral imperative.”
Molly Martin (Director of Organizational Development, Lumina Foundation): "Because of our very specific goal and timeline — that 60% of Americans will have a high-quality degree or credential by 2025 — much of our grant work is proactive. At the heart of our work is a sort of reality check on whom the postsecondary system must serve, who makes up today's student population: 38% of college students today are older than 25, and 58% work while in college (about 40% of community-college students and 20% of four-year students work 20+ hours per week.) Another 26% are raising kids. Nearly half of today’s students live at or below poverty, and a growing number of today’s students are students of color. And few of today’s students study or live full-time at flagship, four-year universities."
"We look to those working to reframe education after high school as being centered on student outcomes versus hours in a chair."
What are you hoping to see as a return on investment on your philanthropy?
Hardin: “When students succeed and professors discover new and better ways to address the challenges in our society, we see that as a successful investment. Ideas that challenge conventional wisdom have driven tremendous progress throughout history, and we aspire to see our philanthropy contribute to new discoveries that help people to live better and more fulfilling lives."
Reindl: “Our investments target two fundamental goals – increasing the number of students achieving high quality credentials and eliminating attainment gaps."
“To get there, we will also be monitoring the effectiveness of things like new approaches to delivering courses and advising students, creating clearer pathways to credentials, and developing new business models for colleges and universities. Most importantly, we will be looking at how quickly we can move from a handful of institutions making these changes to hundreds of institutions."
Martin: “Simply: better outcomes for learners. It is hard to measure impact in philanthropy when you are funding systems change, so we pay close attention to how dialogue and policies change, on campuses and beyond. We see success when those responsible for engaging students (and reengaging returning adult students) are rethinking: how they offer instruction; what it actually costs to pursue a credential after high school and how to reduce barriers to affordability; and how to make sure that students walk away with a tangible, transparent, portable 'currency' to help them find that next job or that next educational opportunity.
“We certainly measure concrete returns when we can, as we did when analyzing ROI for employers investing in their workforces' skills and education. Additionally, we have launched an impact investing arm to seek out more concrete returns: the launch of new student success-centered businesses with double bottom lines, financial and social.”
Are there any reasons you'd look at an institution and decide you'd absolutely NOT want to give into it?
Hardin: “The Charles Koch Foundation supports all kinds of colleges and universities – over 300 of them. While each is unique, the one characteristic that they all have in common is they start with professors and students who share an excitement for open inquiry and a passion for engaging with a wide range of ideas in a civil and respectful way.
Reindl: “For us, the important question is, ‘what characteristics are we looking for in an institutional partner?’ They include an unwavering commitment to closing gaps in college access and success, the ability to promote and support significant innovation that benefits students, and a willingness to share knowledge and lessons learned with peer institutions and others so that we don’t keep reinventing the wheel when it comes to what works for today’s college students. These are not easy asks, but we are encouraged by the number of colleges and universities that are coming around to them.”
Martin: "Typically Lumina does not fund work to benefit single institutions — we focus on investments that drive systems change or help to spread and scale effective practices to get more learners into and through a system that awards them a credential with career and educational outcomes. That being said, we would urge any institution to focus on narrowing attainment gaps and addressing racial disparities."