This Funder Promotes College Completion "With a Purpose"

Here's a higher ed funder that may not be on your radar yet: USA Funds. But it should be, because it has its fingers in a lot of pots, and plenty of money. 

USA Funds is an independent guarantor of student loans and operates a philanthropic branch that partners with state governments, nonprofits and institutions of higher education to fund projects related to college readiness, college completion, and a smoother transition from college to the workplace.

Before we say more, first some backstory:

In 1960, a group of Indianapolis businessmen formed USA Funds, which began operations as a student loan guarantor in 1961. By 1990, USA Group was incorporated as a private nonprofit holding company for USA Funds and its affiliates. Sallie Mae acquired the assets of most USA Group affiliates in 2000, but USA Funds was not part of that transaction. Today, USA Funds continues as an independent student loan guarantor and is unaffiliated with Sallie Mae.

But what really matters here is that the company engages in higher education grantmaking activities that are designed to promote, in its words, "Completion With a Purpose."

Through its grantmaking, USA Funds aims to support attainment of postsecondary credentials that lead to productive careers. The company awards grants in the following four areas:

  • Education to Employment Transition. Grants in this area seek to align education and work force needs.
  • Innovation in College and Career Preparation. The emphasis here is on speeding student progress through college by supporting innovative practices that help students complete college quicker and at a lower cost.
  • Key Education Transitions. This is where USA Funds connects its higher education work to K-12 education, supporting programs that help disadvantaged students get through high school and equip them with the skills needed for success in college and on the job.
  • Quality Assurance and Performance Analytics. Data-driven decision making is the focus here, with grants supporting approaches to leveraging the wealth of data in existence to help educators, policymakers, and families make better decisions.

Indiana's 21st Century Scholars Program is one example of how USA Funds approaches grantmaking. Over its 24-year history, the program has increased the on-time high school graduation and college enrollment rates of low-income students in Indiana. Unfortunately, those improvements have not led to higher rates of college completion. USA Funds awarded a $2.4 million grant to the Indiana Higher Education Commission for the purpose of increasing college graduation rates by 21st Century Scholars.

The grant will fund college coaching and mentoring services that will help incoming college students identify barriers to success, develop contingency plans, and access on-campus resources. Through this grant, USA Funds hopes to see college completion rates among this group of students increase by 10 to 15 percent.

USA Funds also is a partner in funding the University Innovation Alliance, a coalition of state universities seeking to document and disseminate best practices in improving retention and completion among low-income and first-generation students. Other funding partners for this initiative include the Lumina and Gates foundations. (See my recent article on the UIA)

The need to improve college retention and completion among low-income students has emerged as an urgent priority of many higher ed funders, who've come to realize that the hard work of getting kids through high school and enrolled in college doesn't guarantee anything. Add USA Funds to the field.