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Six questions for Kresge Education Program Managing Director Bill Moses


Mike Scutari, Inside Philanthropy

Editor’s Note: This Q&A originally ran in Inside Philanthropy on June 30.  

I first connected with Bill Moses last spring while putting together IP’s “The State of American Philanthropy: Giving for Higher Education” white paper. Moses is the managing director of the Kresge Foundation’s Education Program, which supports postsecondary access and success for low-income, first-generation and underrepresented students, and oversees everything from developing grantmaking strategy to awarding funding.

Kresge Education Program Managing Director Bill Moses

In the intervening year, he’s become a reliable and informative sounding board on a range of issues, such as how philanthropy can support student mental health initiatives and boost civic participation and engagement on campus.

A native of Alaska, Moses graduated from Claremont McKenna College and holds a master’s degree in international relations from Yale University. Prior to joining Kresge, Moses was the executive director of the Thomas J. Watson Foundation in Rhode Island and a senior analyst at the Investor Responsibility Research Center in Washington, D.C. He held various administrative positions in Alaska’s state legislature and the federal government, including at the U.S. Embassy in Cape Town, South Africa.

Earlier this year, he was appointed to serve on President Joe Biden’s board of advisors on historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Moses also helped develop Kresge’s Green Building Initiative and spearheaded the foundation’s grantmaking in South Africa.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Moses about his influences, the best advice her ever received, and why, despite the pandemic, he’s still bullish on the state of higher education. Here are some excerpts from that conversation, which have been edited for length and clarity.

What made you decide you wanted to work in the nonprofit sector?

I grew up in Alaska, and in those days there was no major philanthropy. Now, of course, there’s the Rasmuson Foundation, but back then I didn’t really know much about philanthropy.

When I was in college, I took a course on the Holocaust, and it opened my eyes to the challenges of my generation, and one of them was apartheid in South Africa. I went to South Africa on a fellowship from the Watson Foundation and it led me to think about what I could do to fight apartheid, and it really changed my life.

At the time, there was bipartisan interest in the Congress on sanctions in South Africa, but President Reagan and, to a lesser extent, Bush, were not sufficiently using the power of the American government to make change. What struck me was that the real change-makers were nonprofit organizations and the entities that funded them, like Ford, Kellogg, Rockefeller and Carnegie.

I worked in an organization after I got back from South Africa that was funded by and created by Ford and Carnegie, among others, called the Investor Responsibility Research Center. When apartheid ended, I got hired by the Watson Foundation to be their executive director.

Who are your biggest influences?

One was a professor of mine in college, John Roth, who is a scholar of the Holocaust. His work explored how ordinary people can address injustice and how they can also be part of a reinforcing injustice.

As somebody who cares about South Africa, I wouldn’t get by without naming Nelson Mandela, as well as two other people that are less well known in this country. One is the lawyer and activist Albie Sachs. He defended people being prosecuted under racist and oppressive laws, but went into exile and was eventually targeted by the South African government. He was the victim of a car bombing but came back to the country in 1990 to promote human rights. In 1994, Mandela appointed him to serve on the first Constitutional Court of South Africa.

Another inspiration is a woman named Molly Blackburn, who was active in the parliamentary opposition to apartheid during the 1980s. She came from relative privilege to become a strong advocate for low-income Black communities. She and Sachs were the kinds of people who could make a difference and influence other people.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

When I was in South Africa as a Watson fellow, I asked a Black activist what Americans could do to help the country throw off the shackles of apartheid. He said, “fight racism in your own country.” I think it’s something that’s obviously true — do what you can do within your own domain to make things better.

I also have advice I give other people, such as always use the golden rule — “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” — when you’re engaging with the grantees, and make sure that your grantees and the people they serve are not worse off by your engagement.

What makes you pessimistic about the state of higher education?

The first thing is the drop in enrollment in higher education, especially among Pell-eligible first-gen and students of color. To see that fall off so quickly is not a surprise, but it doesn’t make it any less disappointing.

A second thing is the decreasing political support for higher education in some circles and even the demonization of higher education.

The third is the increasing cost of higher education and student debt and the disproportionate impact debt has on first-gen Pell-eligible students of color. We are increasingly shifting the cost burden away from the public for what is a public good, to the individual. And that becomes a debt that at some level becomes too great.

A fourth concern is the perversion of higher education priorities by things like the pseudoscientific rankings of U.S. News and by institutional practices that reinforce structural racism, like legacy admissions and binding early decision. More than 50% of admitted students to Ivy-plus schools have benefited from legacy admissions and/or binding early decision. That means that less than half of the spaces at these elite institutions are available to people who aren’t privileged by their ancestry and income.

There’s also the argument that elite schools are reluctant to expand their enrollment — which would enable them to admit more disadvantaged students — because it would dilute the institution’s prestige.

It’s not only not expanding enrollment, but also not expanding the number of Pell Grant recipients. Some of these institutions are incredibly wealthy and provide free or loan-free education, which is great. But they haven’t really changed the percentage of their students that are from low-income backgrounds. What’s interesting about South Africa is that they divide the admissions pool into quintiles in terms of family income and strive to admit the most students from the two lowest quintiles. You don’t really see that in the U.S.

Also, a lot of the elite institutions who say they’re increasing racial or ethnic diversity are including international students in the mix. The campus may look diverse, but in reality, there may not be a significant change in the percentage of Americans from underrepresented backgrounds.

Getting back to the cost component, I always come back to the sticking point that since student loans are guaranteed by the government, universities aren’t incentivized to reduce costs, since they’ll get those tuition dollars no matter what.

I think it’s a contributing impact, but remember that there has been a significant decrease in state support for higher education for many years and that virtually every single state in the United States has adopted a balanced budget amendment. That means that you can’t approve a budget for the next year unless you have sufficient revenues.

In general, state governments don’t borrow money for fire services or for the police. They’re using the money they have budgeted. One of the only places you can balance a budget and have someone else pay for it is in higher education, where students and their families borrow the money. So institutions raise tuition and rely on philanthropic dollars more than ever so they’re less impacted by whatever happens in the statehouse.

And there are other complicating factors when it comes to cost, including things like salaries and health insurance. They’re all contributing to these cost issues and I don’t know if we’ve sufficiently addressed them.

What makes you optimistic about the state of higher education?

The first is the growth of free community college programs nationally. I’m on the College Promise National Board, which was created by Dr. Jill Biden, and former Governor Jim Geringer of Wyoming, and it’s been amazing to see the progress in just the last five or six years.

The next one is that over 70% of high school students enrolled in college pre-COVID. Of course, the pandemic changed that, but the long-term trend has dramatically improved. A low-income student was more likely to enroll in college in 2019 than a high-income student was in the middle 1980s. This is a huge change.

The third thing is the increase of people with post-secondary credentials since 2009, which is when we started our work until about a year or two ago, probably 2020. It’s gone up from 38.9% of all adults to 51.9%, which is pretty remarkable. And while equity gaps do remain, there are now examples of institutions like Georgia State University, which we’ve funded, that have effectively removed all equity outcome gaps.

In February, the National Student Clearinghouse reported that the national six-year completion rate reached 62.2%, which is a 1.2 percentage point increase over the year before, despite COVID, and the highest number ever. So even with the enrollment drops, the focus on student success is starting to have an impact.

I’m also encouraged by the University Innovation Alliance’s increase in meeting its goals to graduate more students. In 2014, it aimed to graduate an additional 68,000 students above their projected graduation rates over the course of 10 years. They hit their goal last year and they’re projected to graduate a total of 136,000 students by 2023, which is double the original goal. And UIA member institutions increased the number of graduates from low-income backgrounds by 36% and graduates of color by 73%.

Then there’s the fact that HBCUs are finally getting the government and philanthropic support they deserve. Kresge has been a longtime supporter of HBCUs, so it’s just wonderful to see more people supporting them. The final thing that makes me optimistic is the continued ROI of a college education and the positive outcomes it has for individuals, families, and the nation as a whole. If you get a college degree, it can cost a lot of money. But in almost every circumstance, the degree is still worth it.

What’s the last great book you read?

“Won’t Lose This Dream” by Andrew Gumbel. It’s the story of how Georgia State changed from graduating 25% of its students to becoming probably the most remarkable turnaround story in higher education right now, with its graduate rates approaching 60% and with increases in diversity and Pell Grants students. The book is a case study on how you make change in higher education.