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Who’s running U.S. higher ed? Increasingly, foundations

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When the people with some of the greatest clout over the future of America’s universities and colleges convene in Austin, Texas, they’re not likely to attract very much attention.

They’re not athletics coaches, high-profile presidents, or marquee faculty who publish influential books. They’re not congressmen or legislators. They’re not rich donors or alumni.

They’re the representatives of philanthropic foundations, whose money — combined with the relative inertia of government and the higher-education establishment itself — has made them huge players in setting policy for the institutions that graduate the nation’s future workers and leaders.

“The idea that you’re going to pull this lever and all these institutions are going to suddenly ramp up their success rates isn’t reading the problem correctly.” — Debra Hughes, Association of American Colleges and Universities

“A number of major foundations have decided that social mobility, which they view as an important value, is closely connected with educational opportunity,” said Ben Wildavsky, director of higher-education studies at the State University of New York’s Rockefeller Institute of Government at the University of Albany. “So they’ve been funding a lot of people who they think are good thinkers to figure out new ways to make the system work more effectively that are departures from the conventional wisdom.”

At a time of escalating costs and questionable results, that’s something universities and government might be expected to do. But foundation leaders say it’s not happening quickly enough.

The foundations are “filling a vacuum in terms of leadership,” said Jamie Merisotis, president of the $1 billion Lumina Foundation, which is pushing to increase the proportion of Americans with college degrees. “The fact is, foundations can be part of a leadership culture, and not simply support the ideas of others. We’re an investor in good ideas, but we can also help create those good ideas.”

When Lumina set a goal in 2008 for increasing the number of degree-holders, for example, the call was soon picked up by governors and, ultimately, President Barack Obama. That cause was boosted when the foundation gave money to advocacy groups that are calling for the same thing.

Lumina increased the amount it earmarks annually for programs that drive what is known as student success from $3 million in 2002 to almost $26 million in 2010, and on “productivity” from zero to almost $11 million, according to research conducted at the Claremont Graduate School.

The $36 billion Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, meanwhile, is spending about $73 million a year on grants related to higher education, up from zero in 2004, the researchers found.

About $1 billion a year in all is being poured into education at all levels by these organizations and others, including the Joyce Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. (Lumina, Gates, Joyce, and Kellogg are among the funders of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.)

“The emergence of ‘advocacy philanthropy’ has resulted in the unabashed use of foundation strategies to influence government action, policy, and legislation,” the Claremont researchers concluded. That’s a departure, they wrote, “from the established norms in higher education philanthropy, norms that generally created a distance between foundation activity and politics.”

The newest entrant in the field is the ACT Foundation, created by the company that administers the ACT college-admissions test. At $25 million, its assets pale in comparison with those of the biggest foundations in the field, but its launch in Austin brings together representatives of most of the other major foundations, whose advocacy in higher education continues to converge.

The ACT Foundation will join another major push of its fellow foundations: aligning education and training programs with workforce needs. Along with Gates, Lumina, and Joyce, it plans to support a national network of industry associations that can help so-called working learners understand what skills they need to get jobs and move ahead — whether that means a college or university degree, a union apprenticeship, a certificate program, or an online course.

“College-going doesn’t work for everyone, and many people are left out of the picture of the formal education system,” said Parminder Jassal, executive director of the ACT Foundation, who previously worked at Gates. “They don’t know which one is the right path. We all want to help students get on the right path but we ourselves don’t even know what that right path is.”

Some inside higher education bristle at the foundations’ growing influence over policymaking. They say they themselves are in the best position to come up with solutions to universities’ shortcomings, and complain that the foundations are impatient for results, withdrawing funding from promising projects before they’ve had the time to work, and speeding ahead to new ones.

“They have a sense that there’s going to be the ‘killer app’ solution to the problem of student success,” said Debra Humphreys, vice president for policy and public engagement at the Association of American Colleges and Universities. “And the idea that there is one solution to the problem of student success is ridiculous. The idea that you’re going to pull this lever and all these institutions are going to suddenly ramp up their success rates isn’t reading the problem correctly.”

Merisotis agreed, he said, that, “Impatience is not a virtue. But urgency is, and the difference between the two is that the need to increase higher-education attainment is an urgent national need.”

Foundations are also trying to motivate the other stakeholder in this area — government — said Amy Laitinen, deputy director for higher education at the New America Foundation.

“You expect and hope that Congress will do its job, and one of its jobs is to make higher-education policy,” Laitinen said. “But we see very little desire on the part of Congress to challenge the status quo. There are hearings and rhetoric around affordability, around quality, around value, but we don’t see any legislation that would make college more affordable and more transparent.”

Universities and colleges, she said, at their core, are vested in the current system.

“One of the things that’s so interesting to me when folks are questioning the role of foundations is that there’s such power and money and lobbying behind the status quo that people don’t see,” Laitinen said. “To me that’s the real powerful force here. In terms of actual policy, the higher-education lobby is more powerful than anything. You just don’t really see it.” What the foundations have enabled, she said, “is some alternative voices to help challenge that.”

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