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Reflecting on 2021: A Moment of Opportunity

December 07, 2021

Dear ECMC Foundation Community,

In my office, there’s a plaque I received nearly 30 years ago from one of my early mentors. It says, “In crisis, there’s opportunity.”

After nearly two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, we all know about crisis, and our experiences of it have been myriad – from physical health and well-being to economic and social. In higher education, there has been a well-documented drop-off in student enrollment — at four-year colleges as well as community colleges, and especially among young people. That’s due in part to the pandemic but also to a nationwide skepticism about the value proposition of higher education. So, the charge for the Foundation is to help ensure that postsecondary education functions effectively so more students ultimately succeed, demonstrating why 21st-century generations should invest their time and money in college in the first place.

What makes ECMC Foundation innovative — and what has kept us motivated throughout the last 20 months — is our ability to recognize opportunity and run toward it, even amid challenges. We’ve used this time to double down on promoting equitable growth, make “big bets” and build an infrastructure of opportunity. The preliminary results are encouraging.

Our investments are designed to change systems so students from underserved backgrounds persist in higher education, complete and succeed. But systemic change isn’t easy or fast — and it requires sustained commitments to long-term achievements. That’s why we made “big bets”— robust, multifaceted and multiyear philanthropic efforts — focused on specific, macro-level strategies to test and evaluate ideas that reimagine how students experience postsecondary education and to drive more equitable systems.

In January, our College Success team launched the Catalyzing Transfer Initiative (CTI) to equitably repair the broken transfer pipeline between community colleges and four-year institutions. With grants totaling $4.5 million, CTI kicked off five national-level programs that have already begun turning the gears of change. Grantees have laid out a clearer vision of the landscape, explored different types of articulation agreements and strengthened the case for intercollegiate ransfers. Our efforts to realize agreements around the country and to specifically increase successful transfers for Black and Latinx community college students are well underway.

Our other “big bet” is on career and technical education (CTE), and specifically improving community colleges’ online learning quality and accessibility. Effective faculty adoption of remote tools is on the rise — and ECMC Foundation has helped enable more and more of them to think creatively about how to use those tools to engage students. Yet inequitable outcomes of these programs, especially for students of color, have only been exacerbated by COVID-19, and the conversion to online learning meant that instructors and institutions could no longer respond to students’ needs in the same ways.

So the Career Readiness team partnered with the Urban Institute (UI) to convene a coalition of community and technical colleges in an ongoing two-year community of practice. Already, UI and other collaborators have begun deploying evidence-based tools for reducing equity gaps in online for-credit postsecondary CTE at participating institutions.

Relatedly, ECMC Foundation supported efforts to help better prepare students for today’s workforce by integrating so-called “soft skills”— like listening, time management, flexibility and more — into postsecondary education programs, especially CTE. In a competitive job market, strong soft skills in addition to technical qualifications give candidates an edge.

Also new in 2021, our Education Innovation Ventures program invested in short-term training and education programs that use alternative financing models to advance the upskilling and retraining needed for well-paying jobs.

The Transformational Partnerships Fund, established by ECMC Foundation with additional funding support from Ascendium Education Group, The Kresge Foundation and The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and managed by SeaChange Capital Partners, is gaining recognition as more colleges and universities explore partnerships designed to improve student outcomes. The Chronicle of Higher Education covered the topic in a recent brief, and Inside Higher Ed published this commentary from Vice President of Programs and Strategy Lynn Alvarez and SeaChange Capital Partners Managing Partner John MacIntosh.

Together with partners, grantees and institutions all over the country, we are rethinking the futures of higher education and of work — and learning how to align those worlds for the greater good. Far from “crisis mode,” we’ve been able to move toward strategy, establishing a new and abiding normal that will guide our future investments alongside our values.

Though we’re still too near the crises at hand to fully understand the pandemic’s impacts on student success, ECMC Foundation is proud to be part of a community committed to adapting to and designing for this moment. When you run toward a crisis, you learn how to operate in ways that would be difficult to recognize in good times, and, closing out 2021, I remain honored to lead an organization that has found and made the most of the opportunities embedded in the challenges we face.

Thank you to our partners who have done extraordinary work this year and allowed us to play a part in their incredible impact. Here’s to a safe and successful 2022.


Peter J. Taylor

President, ECMC Foundation

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