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Taking stock and refocusing: foundations forcing shifts in educational priorities

Atlanta — Foundations have a long history of support for American higher education. But as foundations re-focus and shift their priorities, new trends in philanthropic giving are challenging colleges and universities to examine their ability to attract funding.

Foundations contributed $2.46 billion to higher education during the 1995 academic year — 19% of all private contributions — according to the Council for Aid to Education. Over the past 20 years, their giving to higher education has increased 65%.

And while foundation support for higher education is expected to remain strong, fundamental changes in their giving strategies are influencing which institutions and what types of programs get funded.

“We’re seeing more emphasis on pre-collegiate education than we’ve seen before,” said Loren Renz, vice-president for research at The Foundation Center. “Funders who used to fund at the college level now support pre-collegiate initiatives.”

However, colleges and universities that form partnerships with community school systems to develop, for example, programs that encourage and pave the way for students to attend college, find themselves well-positioned these days to attract foundation support.

The Effect on HBCUs

Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) may be affected both by foundations’ funding strategies that directly address support for minority institutions, and by broader grant-making trends — such as growing foundation support for initiatives that promote science studies or that encourage society to place more value on cultural diversity.

For some HBCU presidents, the changing times are bringing an unfavorable development: greater difficulty for smaller HBCUs to attract foundation support.

“Regretfully,” said Dr. Cordell Wynn, president of Stillman College in Alabama, “I am seeing that foundations are more reserved or conservative in supporting historically Black institutions than they were a decade ago.

“They will put it to you like this, `Since the students you recruit could also attend the University of Alabama or the University of Georgia, why do you need to push hard for Stillman?’ We are having to justify in a more intense way the existence of our colleges and universities, and the fact that we serve a special group of students for very special reasons.”

Surveys of foundation literature conducted by The Foundation Center suggest that support for minority students and for minority institutions is strong, and foundation officials say they are not aware of dwindling support for HBCUs.

Wynn believes the growing tendency among foundations is to support the “more visible” schools such as Hampton, Spelman, Morehouse, Xavier and Tuskegee.

Dr. Leonard Dawson, president of Voorhees College in South Carolina agrees. “There seems to be a trend to support the larger, more prestigious as opposed to the smaller, less well-known schools. That trend is a bit disturbing.”

Dawson and Wynn link the trend to the fact that foundations, with fewer dollars to spend, “want to get the most mileage out of their grants,” as Wynn put it. Smaller institutions, Dawson said, can find themselves “frozen out of even making applications.”

Affecting Outcomes

Foundations certainly don’t deny that they are increasingly concerned with being more efficient and effective. They favor spreading less money across the board, and they are seeking greater returns on their investments. Corporate foundations are more interested in how their philanthropic giving affects the bottom line, and private foundations are looking closely at which programs they fund have the greatest societal impact.

“Over the past few years we have tried to be very strategic in the use of our resources,” said Ellen Wert, program officer for education at the Pew Charitable Trusts, which, she said, “underwent major restructuring and re-thinking during the early ’90s . . . And in my dealings with my counterparts, I think I see them struggling with how to do the same thing.”

Even as they take stock and re-focus their program ming, some foundations, corporate and private, still openly pledge their commitment to minority higher education.

In the late 1980s, for example, The Coca-Cola Foundation resolved to put “a more directed, singular emphasis on education.” In pledging to contribute at least $50 million during the ’90s to support educational excellence, the foundation also said it would become more narrowly focused on strategies that, for example, “emphasize higher education,” and that “call for a strengthening of the historic commitment to minority and multi-cultural educational support.”

Minorities on Majority Campuses

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Youth and Education programming “gives priority to minority institutions and those institutions that train minority students for working in early childhood programs.”

Sometimes foundation initiatives address issues that are of particular interest to minority students at majority institutions. The Ford Foundation’s long-standing support of African Studies programs and its Campus Diversity Information Project — encouraging higher education to respond creatively to the nation’s growing diversity — are two examples.

“There are foundations that still believe HBCUs — even the smaller schools — have a unique role and are doing a great job,” said Wynn. “I wouldn’t recommend that small institutions give up. I recommend patience and persistence.”

There is one thing that grantmakers and grantseekers agree on: At a time when foundations are wrestling with increasingly complex societal problems, innovative thinking from grant seekers is a valued commodity. Clearly, all colleges and universities have much to gain by extending their searches for funding beyond the traditional places, and by conceiving more creative, cutting-edge programs and initiatives.

Voorhees president Dawson advised small HBCUs: “We just have to keep pressing and keep making our case when ever we get a chance. Just keep knocking on doors.”

Said Wynn: “You’ve got to be aware of the trends of the foundations, and you’ve got to know what the foundations will fund, so you can zero in on what they will support. You’ve also got to be willing to change, to bring your programs and initiatives in line.”

Funding Priorities

The Foundation Center’s recent survey of the 37 leading funders to higher education highlighted these funding priorities:

* Corporate funders concentrate resources on students and institutions in program areas that contribute most to their parent companies, such as math, science, engineering and business. The distribution of funds by private foundations is much more diffuse. Nevertheless, the support for math, science and engineering education is strong across the entire funder sample. Corporate support of women’s and minorities’ opportunities in these fields appears especially dominant.

* The support for minority students’ access to and retention in higher education is also strong across the entire funder sample. Many grantmakers target this priority by funding historically Black colleges, which, when compared with mainstream institutions, account for disproportionately large numbers of Black graduates, Ph.D.’s and community leaders.

* In response to divisions between ethnic, racial, religious and other affiliated groups on campuses, a few foundations have begun to fund programs that foster closer intergroup relations.

* At the university level, foundations sponsor research and demonstration programs that aim to improve primary, secondary and undergraduate education. Foundation support for teacher training, especially to benefit urban schools, is also strong.

* Foundations are more likely now to target education priorities at many levels. For example, a foundation may support programs to strengthen math and science education at Pre-K, primary, secondary, college and graduate levels. Still, the development of those programs takes place primarily within universities.

* Several key funders underwrite the application of new technologies to education, for purposes such as developing new teaching techniques and materials and for automating library systems.

* Foundations expect universities to play a strong role in their communities and are funding programs that involve university/community collaboration, e.g., in school restructuring.

* Foundation officers say that several trends are especially strong: initiatives that promote problem solving through creative partnerships — among institutions of higher learning, or between higher education and local school systems; programs that link higher education institutions with the communities they serve; and initiatives that can measure and document results.

For example, a foundation that funds a project whose objective is student retention is, more than ever, interested in evidence that the program works and why — not just that the initiative’s goal is laudable.

“We really are interested in how institutions serve students,” said Wert. In fact, the Pew education program’s goal in higher education is “to encourage fundamental changes in teaching and learning . . .”

“The pressure points for us are projects that assess student learning, faculty performance and institutional performance,” explained Wert. “The angle we are most interested in is what brings about improved student success, graduation rates, and student performance.”

Pew’s Third Black Colleges program, for example, is a trust-initiated program — in collaboration with the Southern Education Foundation — to increase student retention and completion rates at selected HBCUs.

At the Kellogg Foundation several years ago, the board approved new strategies that place greater emphasis on linking higher education and community needs, said Betty J. Overton, director of higher education programming.

Kellogg Foundation funding in higher education currently focuses on three areas: institutional transformation and change; linking intellectual resources of colleges and universities to community needs; and adult continuing education.”

“We are seeking to strengthen higher education in this country and to mobilize their resources to serve the needs of people,” said Overton.

Connecting Knowledge and Needs

“This is a watershed period for higher education,” observes Overton. “The business, health, and government communities have had to examine themselves and change, in order to be more responsive to their clients. Higher education is being asked to do the same thing.”

This more integrated approach of connecting knowledge and societal needs “has not diminished our funding for minority groups,” Overton said, “indeed, it has enhanced it.”

For example, the recognized excellence in teaching and research at 10 HBCUs, Overton said, earned them Kellogg Foundation support for strengthening their academic programs. The foundation’s Centers of Excellence Project awarded $30 million over three years for the schools to develop programs in a range of areas, including science and engineering, music, theater, business leadership and international studies.

“Regardless of their historic missions, we wanted to help them build excellence in specific programs,” Overton said.

Just as foundations are realigning their priorities to better meet society’s needs, so must colleges and universities, foundation program officers said.

Colleges and universities are rich in clout, expertise, research capabilities and other “institutional capital” that they can be applied to societal problems.

“They have to think more about how they are connected to other institutions and to society, and they have to think more about what leadership roles they expect to play,” said Renz.

Wert agreed: “Most of the projects we fund involve networks of institutions working on a common problem,” she said.

In looking to foundations for support, colleges and universities should “recognize that foundations not only help institutions that they find worthy, they help those who help the higher education enterprise,” said Edgar F. Beckham, program officer for the Ford Foundation’s Education and Culture program.

“The focus today is on making systemic change,” he continued. “To the extent that institutions can say that their programs don’t just help their institutions, but they provide a model for others, they are more likely to attract attention [from potential funders].”

COPYRIGHT 1996 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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