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How the Coronavirus Is Prompting Higher-Ed Grantmakers to Change Course

April 01, 2020

By Goldie Blumenstyk, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Grantmakers to higher education suddenly face a new reality. In less than a month, just about all of face-to-face higher education moved to remote operations. The American economy shifted from near full employment to a spiral that could end up exceeding the joblessness levels of the Great Depression. And of course our country — and most of the world — is still struggling to meet the growing medical needs of far too many.

Even as the ground continues to move, several of the biggest philanthropic influencers are already shifting gears. This past week I spoke to leaders of six of the biggest higher-education grantmaking organizations, who collectively account for some $370 million annually in grants to hundreds of colleges, associations, and other organizations.

Each had a slightly different take, which I share below, but these are three of the biggest priorities for giving across the board:

  • Efforts to get more emergency aid directly into the hands of students in financial need right now.
  • Organizations that can help facilitate quality online learning as well as access to it.
  • Academic services for populations of students who were already at a disadvantage in getting to and through college, and will now be even more affected by the economic turmoil.

The grantmakers also raised concerns about the needs of students and families not met by the three federal stimulus packages, the value in building more capacity for holistic crisis planning, and the ramifications of the economic upheaval that has already begun to roil most colleges — and close some of them.

The six leaders I spoke with oversee postsecondary philanthropy at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ascendium Education Group, the Lumina Foundation, the ECMC Foundation, the Strada Education Network, and the Kresge Foundation. (I listed them in order of the size of their annual giving to higher ed.)

Their empathy for the most vulnerable students wasn’t surprising, but knowing that was top of mind was edifying, especially with news of massive job layoffs continuing to flood my news feeds.

Amy Kerwin, vice president for education philanthropy at Ascendium, told me that she’s worried especially about two groups of students: the cohort of high-school seniors who will find it even more challenging to secure the money to go to college, and “all those students who need to drop out” now for financial reasons. “How do we get them to eventually come back for their degrees?” she wondered.

Kresge, which is based in the Detroit area, has a focus on cities. Bill Moses, managing director of its education program, said he’s been thinking a lot about the low-wage working students his grantees serve, “who are more likely to lose their job, or they’re working with a certain level of danger” because they work in groceries, warehouses, or other essential jobs where protection against the coronavirus might not be as good as it should be.

How does all this concern translate into concrete action? Well, for one, several of the foundations said they would be looking to support better systems for distributing colleges’ emergency aid, including a start-up called Edquity, the evolution of which I’ve been watching for two years. Peter Taylor, the head of the ECMC Foundation, said he plans to ask his board next week to approve $2.25 million in new grants to Edquity, the University Innovation Alliance, and other groups.

With the grand shift to remote learning, the focus on digital learning is understandable. Patrick Methvin, the head of postsecondary-success programs at Gates, said he’ll turn to existing grantees for advice on where to put additional money. That direction is a natural for Gates, which has traditionally funded adaptive courseware, data analytics, and other tech-based projects, and now does so through the Every Learner Everywhere consortium. But even foundations that never had online learning as a high priority are now reconsidering. As Kerwin told me, training faculty for online teaching wasn’t historically a huge issue for Ascendium. But, she said, “it has to be today.”

Here’s what else struck me from my conversations:

Jamie Merisotis, president of Lumina and also currently chair of the Council on Foundations, expects the economic turmoil will place even more demands on colleges’ capacity to be adaptive. “We’ll want to be serving adults more and better,” he said, and the challenges people face in trying to upgrade their skills “are going to be magnified.” Taking a lesson that foundations learned from the 2008 financial crisis, he said Lumina would concentrate on shoring up the organizations that are already out there doing the work. Lumina happened to grant more money last year than this year, ($80 million, rather than $60 million) so many of its grantees are in good shape. “They’ve got capacity now,” he said.

Bill Hansen, president and chief executive of Strada, which calls itself a social-impact organization, predicts that many of the best responses to the crisis will arise from the local level. Strada has previously funded the National Governors Association and the Education Commission of the States — two groups with strong local connections — and it will rely on them for guidance. (Its grants exceed $20 million a year.) Strada’s ownership of ventures like the economic-modeling company Emsi and its partnership with Gallup, Hansen said, could help highlight important public-policy issues and economic trends. “We’re not GM, and we can’t build ventilators,” he said, but this kind of information could be useful to governments and institutions and employers.

Kerwin fears for the future of postsecondary-education programs in prisons, despite emerging political support for “second chance Pell Grants.” Prison education has been a top priority for Ascendium. (Its annual grants total $108 million.) Right now, of course, the highest priority for prisons is to keep closely housed incarcerated people from dying of Covid-19. Those education programs are likely suffering, and once the crisis passes, Kerwin worries “that they will be the last to come back online.”

Taylor, who was chief financial officer at the University of California from 2009 to 2014, when it endured deep cuts in state funding, wonders what the economic havoc will do to the higher-education business model. He came to UC after 16 years in investment banking. That experience, he said, taught him that the hardest adaptations to make in higher education aren’t the practical ones or even the technical ones, but the “cultural changes.” Now, as a grantmaker (ECMC spends $40 million in grants annually), he said he wants to be attuned to that.

Methvin, who noted that “it’s difficult to imagine a fall 2020 where there aren’t some closures” of colleges, highlighted the importance of developing better safety nets for students left stranded by colleges shutting down. Grim, yes. But smart, too. And he wasn’t just talking about financial safety nets, but also an academic safety net, like having better systems in place to help students more easily transfer credits. Methvin recalled the chaos that thousands of students faced when the Corinthian Colleges chain abruptly shut its doors — not to mention ITT Tech and other schools since then. (Gates spends $120 million on grants in postsecondary education.)

Moses, noting the “absence of strong leadership at the national level,” emphasized the key role colleges can play in providing “intellectual leadership and problem solving.” In fact, Kresge (with an overall higher-ed grant portfolio of $18 million) has just funded a $50,000 grant to the National Academy of Sciences to hold two virtual convenings for the purposes of better enlisting institutions’ expertise to deal with Covid-19 crises on practical matters such as how to allocate scarce PPE (an acronym many of us just learned in the past two weeks) or where to set up temporary hospitals. And it’s not just for research universities. Minority-serving institutions know their communities, he noted, and community colleges have work-force expertise. As Moses put it, “it goes back to that idea of the university as an anchor.”

I ended with that on purpose. Seemed like a nice thought to hold onto right now, especially with all the frenzy around us.

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