On November 20, 2019

The philanthropy challenge in higher education

By Dan Smith

Nationwide, approximately 50% of all students pursuing higher education attend community colleges. But only about 1.5% of total private donations for higher education directly support the mission of community colleges. This occurs despite many compelling factors at play which philanthropy usually relies on to inform its decision-making. For instance, operational costs for community colleges typically are much lower and student enrollment is in fact much greater—and therefore the potential for widespread impact on economic mobility is much higher—than that offered by many traditional four-year colleges and universities.

When half of all enrolled college students attend class of institution that receives less than 2% of private financial support, we see an ethical and structural challenge in philanthropy and higher education that must be solved.

Richard Reeves, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, shared in his keynote address at the Vermont Community Foundation’s 2018 annual meeting that helping low-income students attend and graduate from college is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet in advancing economic mobility. In his view, and ours at the Vermont Community Foundation, community colleges play a vital and unique role in any serious, credible commitment to strengthen the American middle class.

We are a small, rural state. And yet here, as with so many other places, education and training after high school is one of the most powerful mechanisms available to improve the social mobility and economic security of our neighbors and rebuild our civic and social capital across all regions. But this sort of transformational progress can happen only if education and training is available to Vermonters regardless of where they are born and who their families are.

Currently, about 36% of low-income Vermont students enroll in degree programs after high school, which is the lowest in New England according to the New England Secondary Schools Consortium. The enrollment rate of their non-economically disadvantaged peers is approximately 22 points higher, or 58%. Not unrelated, Vermont also has the highest poverty rate in New England among 18-34 year olds.

These diverging enrollment statistics—36% and 58%—are just one illustration of the opportunity gap and they demonstrate the cognitive dissonance in our collective approach to higher education. In aspiration, higher education is a tool for advancing equity, opportunity, and a thoughtful citizenry; yet, our approach to funding (publicly and privately) risks entrenching the economic and ideological divides that already polarize our communities and our country.

Whether we are talking about Vermont or any other state, if we aren’t finding a way to nourish the talent and potential of those who aren’t continuing their education after high school at scale, we risk creating the type of class rigidity that higher education in its modern form was designed to obliterate.

The platform for doing so exists and yet remains broadly overlooked by philanthropy. In Vermont, we’re fortunate to have the Community College of Vermont (CCV), which is celebrating its 50th anniversary next year. As Vermont’s second-largest college, CCV serves more than 5,000 students a semester across its 12 campuses and through extensive online learning opportunities. Deeply rooted in every corner of the state, CCV exemplifies all that community college systems aspire to—myriad opportunities for academic and personal growth through flexible, innovative programs and support services that nourish a rich network of partners. These partners and their networks are vital to the creation of vibrant and economically thriving communities.

At the Community Foundation, we’ve joined a cohort of peer foundations from around the country in seeking to close the opportunity gap across our state. Through that peer group we have come to recognize the dangerous consistency across the challenges facing rural communities nationally. Access to college and career training that leads to a community’s most promising jobs is a key strategy for creating opportunity. In Vermont, we are proud to have backed that up with our philanthropy. Because of the outsize role it plays in economic mobility in our state, the Community College of Vermont is the single most substantial institutional education partner of the Vermont Community Foundation.

The J. Warren & Lois McClure Foundation, a supporting organization here at the Community Foundation, has given almost $2.5 million to CCV over the last decade. Program highlights include specialized support services for veterans and military-connected students; the free Introduction to College and Careers program for Vermont high school students; and seed funding for the ReSET  VT program, which provides access to career preparation and college courses for inmates at Northern State Correctional Facility with a high likelihood of having experienced poverty and of being first-generation college students.

Could this type of investment point to a nascent funding trend for community colleges?

There is good news. A recent article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy outlines how larger gifts to community colleges have experienced a sharp rise in the past decade, with U.S. philanthropists giving more than $271 million nationally to community colleges since 2009.

That’s a lot of money, but in philanthropy we need to wrestle with the complex relativity of our industry. There is no shortage of eight-and-nine figure gifts to individual institutions that are profiled in The Chronicle of Philanthropy on a regular basis.

In Vermont, we’ve adopted a goal of achieving a 70% postsecondary attainment rate by 2025, but we are a long way from collectively funding in a strategic way the institutions that will drive to that goal. If we are serious about economic mobility, here’s the change we need to see, in Vermont and elsewhere.

It’s time for foundations and philanthropists and our aspiring change-makers in the public sector to reflect on who an institution serves, who it doesn’t, and why that matters for us—civically, economically and socially.

More funders need to build on the commitment of the cohort of philanthropists, like the McClure Foundation, that focus on community colleges. For all the rhetorical pledges to social change in the world of philanthropy, one of the most potent interventions remains under-resourced relative to the scale of its impact. It’s time to challenge ourselves to invest in the community college infrastructure in ways that recognize the transformative impact, at scale and in place, that are offered by these institutions.

Dan Smith is the president and CEO of the Vermont Community Foundation.

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