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Kresge’s Education Program’s five 2021 grantmaking priorities


Responding to the enduring effects of COVID-19 and sharpening the focus on the future of college access and success

In 2020, a global pandemic changed how students pursue a college education. Shifts from face-to-face to remote learning meant access to campus supports including food, housing, and reliable internet connectivity were no longer readily available. For others, caring for sick loved ones or the loss of wages due to job changes meant pausing their studies.

For would-be students, the pandemic thwarted plans to upskill and turned the prospect of degree completion from a dream manifest into a dream deferred. Black, Latinx and Indigenous students and students already living with low incomes faced these adverse impacts at higher rates than their white and well-resourced peers.

In 2020, we sought to address COVID-related challenges affecting higher education, but our overarching grantmaking strategies, what we call Focus Areas, remained unchanged. Those Focus Areas are Strengthening Urban Pathways to College, Supporting Institutional Capacity Building for Student Success, and Aligning Urban Higher Education Ecosystems.

As we look ahead, we remain committed to those long-term goals. Nevertheless, the pandemic requires that we use new tactical opportunities to support postsecondary access and success that eliminate racial equity gaps and lead to increased socioeconomic security and mobility. Throughout 2021, we will support equity-driven efforts that respond to challenges students, institutions and cities now face. Although we will fund some new-to-our-portfolio entities, we will focus primarily on deepening existing grantmaking, investing in partners that we believe must be sustained to address the current era’s crisis and lay the foundation for enduring success.

Five key themes will shape our grantmaking in 2021:

Mitigate Declines in First-Time College Enrollment: The effects of the pandemic – loss of life, job and income changes, and shifts to remote learning – forced many would-be first-time students to change their enrollment plans. These students are more likely to be Black, Latinx or Indigenous students or come from households living with low incomes. To mitigate enrollment declines for this year’s high school seniors, we will work with experienced national groups like the National College Attainment Network to support targeted solutions that support communities to help first-time students pursue a college education.

Strengthen College Promise Programs: College Promise Programs are an emerging opportunity for cities, regions, and states to make college more affordable by providing tuition-free pathways to postsecondary credentials. The Biden-Harris Administration has signaled its support for free community college and provided additional momentum in the sector. But the design of some promise programs means scarce resources may not reach students with the greatest need. This year we will launch a grantmaking initiative aimed at shaping promise programs that are equity-driven, sustainable, and integrated into local economic development.

Sustain and Secure Equity-Driven Student Success Solutions: Our partners have tested and identified effective strategies that narrow inequities in college access and help more students graduate with high-quality postsecondary credentials. Concentrated efforts to boost FAFSA completion, for example, translate to increased college-going rates among students from low-income households. At Georgia State University, data-informed support interventions have helped to double graduation rates and eliminate equity gaps based on race, ethnicity and income levels for six consecutive years.  In 2021, we will support efforts to scale these and other approaches at universities and colleges nationally so more students can benefit from these innovations.

Prioritize Student Persistence: Staying enrolled in college amidst the pandemic has proven challenging for students already balancing caretaking and work obligations, or for first-time college students on tight budgets. This year we will support efforts that help colleges keep students connected to their studies and meet their basic needs outside the classroom including food, housing, internet connectivity and mental health resources.

Support Comebacker and Transfer Students: Displaced workers seeking to upskill, former students looking to restart and complete a previous course of study, or students seeking to transfer to another institution that better meets their educational goals, can achieve increased socio-economic security by earning a high-quality postsecondary credential. Unfortunately, far too often institutional practices create barriers to these transfer or “comebacker” students.  This year, we will support efforts by institutions and higher education systems to remove barriers to help former students complete their studies and foster student success.

William F.L. Moses is the Managing Director of Kresge’s Education Program. Follow him on Twitter @_billmoses.