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New Academic Year Brings New Opportunities to Address Longstanding Barriers

September 23, 2021

Dear ECMC Foundation community,

There’s no denying the last academic year felt longer than most, or that this fall’s semester has brought with it many challenges. But for all the bad news and uncertainty out there, the COVID-19 pandemic has unearthed opportunities to address deep-seated inequities and confront systemic barriers that have prevented too many students from succeeding for far too long.

In higher education, it’s easy to get wrapped up in thinking about the system itself: sustaining institutions, supporting faculty, funding research and thinking long-term. As a result, students can become an afterthought…which misses the point entirely.

That’s why we consistently ask ourselves, “How can we help make higher education more effective for low-income students, first-generation students and students of color?”

Our charge is ultimately to support students — their mental health and wellbeing, their access to quality education and support services, and above all, their success. We’re delighted that federal funding has begun to prioritize that, and ECMC Foundation does, too, with a particular focus on empowering students from historically marginalized communities. In a recent Center for Effective Philanthropy survey, our grantees — and even declined applicants — agreed that we have a strong influence on advancing knowledge in the sector, particularly when it comes to how we enable underrepresented populations to be successful in postsecondary education.

For us, community colleges are central to that mission.

To help the largest numbers of students, community colleges are where some of the greatest opportunities exist to improve success rates. As of spring 2021, community colleges enrolled more than 4.5 million students. With more accessible admissions and affordable tuition, community colleges offer a key inroad into higher education for many students, whether they’re earning a professional certificate, an associate degree or transferring to a four-year program. Community college students emerge prepared for fulfilling careers, and the effects on their futures and their families’ can be transformational — particularly for students of color and low-income students. More than half of Latinx undergraduates, 44 percent of Black undergraduates and 45 percent of Asian American undergraduates in the country attend community colleges. Further, about 37 percent of students whose families earn less than $20,000 a year also attend these vitally important institutions.

Since 2015, ECMC has made 152 grants totaling more than $63.5 million to community colleges, trying to ensure we’re reaching the maximum number of students from historically underrepresented backgrounds. Our funding on this front has steadily increased over the years and focused on the leading edge of innovation in the field. That’s where we can be most effective.

In the 2018–19 academic year alone, our work spanned 172 colleges and nine systems across 46 states and the District of Columbia that enrolled more than 3 million students collectively — of which 63 percent were students of color and 56 percent were women.

With that knowledge in mind, we have committed $10 million over the next five years to increase the six-year associate degree attainment rates for single mother students to 25 percent. Our recent RFP outlines what we’re looking for in a learning partner to advance this strategy.

As we release new rounds of grants this fall and winter, our commitment to community colleges — and on these targeted populations and programs within them — will continue. Among our areas of focus, we will support career and technical education (CTE) — practical, actionable certificates and workforce-aligned degree programs that put graduates on track for good, steady careers. CTE is often overlooked by funders, even as it’s a major point of access. All the more reason for us to focus on it!

In study after study, the data back up our beliefs: investing in community college student success is critical to making higher education the more equitable, navigable and ultimately accessible space it ought to be.

We look forward to carrying on with this journey.



Peter J. Taylor

President, ECMC Foundation

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