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Philanthropy's Power to Disrupt the Industry

November 01, 2016

By Peter J. Taylor, ECMC Foundation

Higher education, today, is at a turning point. It faces a host of challenges that requires a reexamination of its identity and purpose.

Significant state funding cutbacks since the Great Recession have led public institutions of higher education to raise tuition prices—33 percent on average at four-year public colleges since 2007-2008. Students' inability to afford higher tuition prices are partly responsible for lower completion and lower enrollment rates that we see across the country. The impact is disproportionately felt by students from low-income, first-generation families and traditionally underserved communities.

Education institutions are also grappling with shifting demographics among students: fewer students are ages 18-24 and coming directly from high school. More than one-third students are adult learners, over the age 25, and many of whom work full time and have family obligations.

Technological advances are also transforming operations: students are able to attend any classroom anywhere in the world without having to leave their home. Today's students have more options and schools face increased competition.

To survive the changing landscape of education, experts are calling upon higher education to look toward innovation. Creativity, thinking outside the box, and radical new ideas are all needed, but making them a priority in higher education, in reality, is difficult.For a field that is traditionally averse to change, stuck on stale traditions, and subject to extensive regulations, compliance, and policies from governing bodies, accreditors, and the state departments of education that fund them, asking higher education institutions to think differently is no easy call-to-action.

Moreover, implementing new programs and ideas is expensive. Government funding makes up the significant portion of funding for higher education, as well as support services and programs that help students successfully enter, complete their programs and become gainfully employed. The problem is government funding is typically reserved for programs and services that are already in existence. And, in an era of budget cuts, it is increasingly prioritized for those that are evidence-based. Frankly, not much is available for creative thinking.

This scenario, unfortunately leads us back to the status quo. If higher education needs a major face-lift to survive, but it is resistant to change and government is risk-averse, what gives?

This is where philanthropy comes in, providing the investments for change with a focus on long-term improvement.

Today is National Philanthropy Day. Coincidentally, this week is also American Education Week. As we celebrate charitable giving and education in America, I hope to deliver a message that lights a pathway toward fixing the issues that American education faces today.

Philanthropy's role in education is not new—it has always been the driver of remarkable change and progress. Back to the 19th century, when public education was not free and reserved for only the wealthiest families and elite, a group of philanthropists raised money to build schools for children from low-income families. This is just one example of how, throughout history, philanthropy has created opportunities, broken down barriers, and pushed the agenda for new programs and areas of study.

Philanthropy is uniquely positioned to be champions for innovation in ways that other sectors and players cannot. Whereas businesses are accountable to quarterly financial returns and government to voters, foundations are accountable to our vision and commitment to do good in our communities.

Whereas businesses are accountable to quarterly financial returns and government to voters, foundations are accountable to our vision and commitment to do good in our communities.

Philanthropy's role as a champion for change in higher education is arguably more important than it has ever been in our lifetime. At ECMC Foundation, we support innovation and are willing to take risks on promising projects that have the potential to be scaled to benefit a large number of students. We fund programs and new ideas that inspire and facilitate improvements on educational outcomes, especially for students that are traditionally underserved.  Across our three program areas—Teacher and Leader Development, College Success and Career Readiness—we have funded a number of projects that are innovative in nature and have the potential to be transformative in impact.

We believe innovation and change begin in the classroom and with teachers. Our Teacher and Leader Development program is working with the Buck Institute for Education to train faculty members at schools of education in Project-Based Learning (PBL), a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skill by working for an extended time on complex real-world problems and challenges. Faculty members will then prepare and train pre-service teachers in PBL-instructional practices that better serve students in high-need K-12 school districts. 

We are also looking at ways to leverage technological advances to empower students. Grad Gear's innovative GradGuru smartphone app, which we are supporting through our College Success program, keeps community college students, many of whom are from low-income families of color, on track to completion. The app sends timely reminders and evidence-based tips on how to finish college faster.

ECMC Foundation also recognizes that traditional college does not work for everyone and there are different pathways to success. This logic led our Career Readiness program to support LeadersUp's project, The Future at Work: Accelerating Youth Career Pathways. Their work will connect young adults—who typically are disconnected from both school and employment—to entry-level positions and at the same time to management training pathways at local community colleges. This approach simultaneously helps the employees attain a postsecondary credential and advance in the workplace while helping businesses diversify their talent pipeline. 

These projects enable teachers to empower students, help students from underserved communities improve their educational outcomes and lead young adults into successful careers. And they are only a snapshot of the many exciting innovative projects that ECMC Foundation is supporting.

Philanthropy may be a small player in the overall education arena, but the work that we and others in philanthropy do can lead to incremental, transformative change that the higher education space needs. That's what those of us at ECMC Foundation believe. For now, we're focused on making those long-term investments that will lead the way.

Peter J. Taylor

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