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A Year of New Beginnings and Accelerating Change

December 14, 2023

Dear ECMC Foundation Community,

As we near the end of 2023, I invite all of us to take a moment to applaud all postsecondary students for continuing their learning journeys and congratulate the remarkable December graduates who earned their college credentials this month. Student success is at the heart of our work at ECMC Foundation, and we’re pleased to reflect on our current efforts in support of students as we eagerly await the start of 2024.

This year has been especially rewarding for me. Since February, I have had the privilege to serve alongside an amazing Foundation team in Los Angeles and mission-centric colleagues at Minneapolis-based ECMC Group. During this holiday season, I am deeply grateful to the entire ECMC Group enterprise and our partners in the community. Our work has been accelerated through growth, guided by a new strategic framework and fueled by a sense of urgency. Students deserve improved outcomes from postsecondary institutions and systems, and we’re optimistic that together, we can support all students on their path to postsecondary completion.

By year’s end, the Foundation will have awarded nearly $56 million in grants and investments, and we are poised to increase funding in 2024. To support this growth, we’ve added professional staff in the past year, including two individuals based in ECMC Group’s Minneapolis headquarters and one staff member who will be based in Washington, D.C. These positions span all aspects of our work: grantmaking, investing, learning and evaluation (L&E) and communications.

Colleagues, our motivation is profound. Just this year, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported that the population of individuals with some college and no credential has exceeded 40 million. Meanwhile, the college completion rate has flatlined at 62.2%; at four-year colleges, completion rates have dropped with disparities by race/ethnicity and gender. That said, completion rates at community colleges have slightly increased, and more than half of states saw completion increases. Some institutions of higher education will face challenging choices as closures, while still unusual, are expected to rise.

Overall, undergraduate enrollment trended upward in 2023, although not among first-year students. Still, this was welcome news across the postsecondary ecosystem and an important signal that more students are successfully navigating the first hurdle in their journeys through higher education. As we assess this data and our potential to achieve maximum impact, we have reorganized our staffing structure to streamline our grantmaking through our strategic framework. We have developed two teams led by Sarah Belnick and Jennifer Zeisler, our senior program directors. Jennifer leads our strategically responsive grantmaking team. Sarah oversees our initiatives portfolio, which just added a sixth body of work, the Rural Impact Initiative. The new initiative will launch in 2024 and is led by Dr. Stephanie Sowl, a published expert in the field of postsecondary education among rural communities. We are eager to deploy resources to address the unique challenges faced by rural students.

Our other five initiatives have made significant progress in 2023. Just last month, our Basic Needs Initiative launched a new strategy that focuses on building long-term, sustainable solutions for pervasive challenges that prevent students’ most fundamental needs from being met. The CTE Leadership Collaborative Initiative has grown from its 2018 roots, funding six fellowship programs for leaders in career and technical education to establishing a robust network of ECMC Foundation Fellows and program alumni. This summer, the Men of Color Initiative’s flagship Takeoff program launched in partnership with the USC Race and Equity Center. As part of the Single Mother Student Success Initiative’s support of innovative cross-sector partnerships, this year’s grants included funding for the planning phase of a new partnership designed to bring more child care centers to community college campuses. To smooth transfer pathways, the Transfer and Credit Mobility Initiative pursued tech-enabled solutions to compare different institutions’ courses, including a grant to Open Syllabus, which uses machine learning and AI to ease the process.

Meanwhile, the strategically responsive grantmaking team continues to expand ECMC Foundation’s impact in other areas and is in ongoing conversation with our partners in the field about where change is needed most. For example, through a partnership with Campus Compact, ECMC Foundation is supporting the development of career experiences and near-peer coaching for community college students from underserved backgrounds to close talent shortages in high-wage fields and help students achieve social and economic mobility. The multi-sector project aims to transform postsecondary pathways and meet regional and national workforce demands.

Our L&E team is working closely with our initiatives and strategically responsive portfolio teams to support projects that leverage data, evaluation and research. So far in 2023, two-thirds (67%) of our grant-funded projects actively leverage data. These projects involve evaluating programs; applying research to generate new information; increasing the data capacity of institutions and states; bringing together disparate data sources; developing new data or refining existing data; and/or democratizing data by developing, refining, or expanding access to data via dashboards, apps or other tools.

The breadth, depth and impact of our grantmaking is assessed not only by our L&E team internally, but we also measure our effectiveness through a biennial survey led by the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP). The survey tracks our performance and shows how we rank among our peers to help us continuously improve our philanthropic practices. We were pleased with many of CEP’s findings and recognize opportunities for improvement that we are eager to pursue in the new year.

Beyond our grantmaking, ECMC Foundation also has entered into critical partnerships through Education Innovation Ventures (EIV), which makes catalytic investments into nonprofit and for-profit ventures that seek to generate both social impact and financial returns. This year, EIV added a new senior associate, grew its portfolio to 28 active companies and shared its work and philosophy at EDTECH WEEK in NYC, SOCAP in San Francisco and more.

I am so proud of the Foundation’s continued evolution as we stay true to our mission, vision and rigorous evaluation standards. Through careful learning and evaluation, we are reaching a greater understanding of what works and what does not as we strive to achieve systemic change to close opportunity gaps across postsecondary education.

During this holiday season, I look forward to 2024 with tremendous appreciation and optimism as I consider the movement and momentum that is growing around us. Again, thank you for your partnership and solidarity in service to students.



Jacob Fraire
President, ECMC Foundation

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