Generation Debt: A Millennial Policy Group Pulls in Heavyweight Funders

It’s no secret that students are struggling with debt. From 2005 to 2015, college debt accrued by young people and their families spiked by an alarming 231 percent. The student loan total has even surpassed credit card debt, trailing only mortgages as the largest overall form of debt Americans owe.

The debate over student debt has been heating up for years, but because students and recent grads are new to adulthood, their voices are missing in this conversation—when they should be central.

Enter the Young Invincibles, a memorably named policy shop dedicated to tackling problems facing millennials, especially college debt, finding healthcare and landing jobs.

The group is still a newbie on the policy scene. It was started in 2009 to elevate young voices in the healthcare reform debate, and has grown by leaps and bounds since then, now maintaining a staff of over 30 and five offices around the country, with headquarters in D.C. We’ve covered Young Invincibles before, looking at its collaboration with the Cognosante Foundation on the YI Scholars program, a fellowship offering first-generation college students a chance to live, work, and absorb Washington, D.C., in all its glory. 

Related:Next Gen Voices: A Funder Backs a New D.C. Internship Program for Millennials

Cognosante, a healthcare firm, is just one of a number of funders who've been drawn to Young Invincibles, mixing policy and advocacy work with useful research on the challenges facing millennials, as well as hands-on resources to help young people cope with those challenges. Over its short history, Young Invincibles has attracted support from such top foundations as Annie E. Casey, Kresge, Atlantic Philanthropies, the California Community Foundation, and Packard. Other notable donors to Young Invincibles include the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the New York Community Trust. (See a list of funders here.)

Then there's the Gates Foundation, which has given YI $2.87 million in funding in recent years, which is substantial money for any small policy group. 

The latest grant directs $750,000 over 17 months to develop student-led approaches to changes in higher education. This grant from Gates comes after two larger payouts in 2014 and 2015, both dedicated to strengthening student voices and drawing policy attention to higher education. As the support continues, there’s a lot of synergy between grantmaker and grantee. Gates breaks its education funding into two categories: college readiness, focusing on K-12, and postsecondary education. Within postsecondary, the foundation sees itself in a catalytic role, supporting “solutions that are unlikely to be generated by institutions working alone.”

For Gates and Young Invincibles, it’s less about funding education directly and more about creating ways to navigate the higher education maze. Data is a major focus—moving beyond admissions offices and vague promises of a brighter future to find out where students get the most value for the time and money they spend on an education. "Right now, we can’t answer basic questions about colleges and their outcomes, like which schools or programs lead to different types of jobs for different types of students," YI notes. (See more about its higher ed data work here.) Of course, the Obama administration has also focused on ensuring that consumers get better answers about their likely return from a college degree, so YI's work is very on the cutting edge of current policy debates. 

Young Invincibles isn’t afraid to use the Silicon Valley term “disrupt” when discussing better alignment between higher education and the workforce. Another priority is pushing for federal action on college debt, which includes paying more attention to the needs of first-generation college students and students of color.

You can see why Gates has been shoveling big money to this outfit. Meanwhile, YI's work on healthcare and jobs taps into keen funder interests in these areas, with workforce development issues especially hot right now, as we report often. 

Young Invincibles may still be young, but it has demonstrated quite a knack for keying in on issues that deep-pocketed donors also care deeply about.