Why a Big Give for “DREAMers” Should Make You More Hopeful About Elite Philanthropy

There's a fair amount of cynicism out there about the philanthropy of America's wealthy elites, and nowhere is that more true than when it comes to giving for education. Long before John Paulson dumped $400 million on America's richest university, the rap was that the rich either give to charter schools and ed reform groups that advance their pro-market ideologies or to elite alma maters that don't need the money. 

Whatever the merits of that narrative, a big gift last month that went largely unnoticed stands as a reminder of just how diverse education philanthropy is these days: A combined pledge of $30 million to fund college scholarships for immigrant DREAMers from former Washington Post publisher Donald E. Graham and the Pershing Square Foundation, which was started by the hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman and his wife Karen. The gift to TheDream.US scholarship fund comes with a challenge to the philanthropic community to open their checkbooks to enable more DREAMers a shot at earning their degrees. At a minimum, it means that 1,200 immigrant students in DACA or Temporary Protected Status (TPS) limbo will have the opportunity to chase after their educational dreams.

Right now, these kids don’t qualify for federal student aid or federally funded grants such as the Pell Grant, making a degree more of a pipe dream rather than a real possibility. Which is why private funding is so important. And although theDream.US is a relatively new fund, it isn’t wasting any time helping immigrant youth pay for college. 

Related: The Big Money Behind a New College Fund for Immigrant “DREAMers”

Earlier this year, the Pershing Square Foundation pledged $10 million to theDream.US. This new gift of $15 million brings its total commitment to $25 million to help educate some of the most marginalized young people in the United States. 

TheDream.US was founded by Graham, his journalist wife, Amanda Bennett and a few of their high-powered friends, including philanthropist Henry Muñoz III, and former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez. The founders raised $25 million before officially launching the fund in 2014 and added another $7 million to the pot a short time later. Other high-powered and well-connected funders fell in line, checkbooks at the ready, including the Gates Foundation, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, the Omidyars, and Pershing Square.

Bill Ackman's support is the most intriguing to us, since he would seem to fit the stereotype of the overly zealous Wall Street ed reformer who thinks a strong dose of business know-how, along with the magic of the market, can whip schools into shape. A few years back, Ackman joined Zuckerberg in a bid to remake Newark schools that didn't go well, to put things mildly. (See our piece on "Mark Zuckerberg's Vietnam.")

But as we've learned, generalizing about the ed funders from business is not such a hot idea. They come to this space with a lot of different motives and back stories, and their spouses may play big roles in shaping their giving. For example, Alex Cohenthe wife of the billionaire hedge fund guy Steve Cohengrew up in a poor neighborhood in Washington Heights, and her life experiences figure strongly in the Cohens' support for charter schools that serve low-income kids.

Ackman is a perfect example of why it's risky to ideologically pigeonhole funders from business. He engages in philanthropy in partnership with his wife Karen, and Pershing Square backs an eclectic set of grantees, including some progressive organizations. And they're among the strongest boosters of the DREAMers.

Related: Why Does This Wall Street Billionaire Care About Helping Immigrant DREAMers?

Last year, the fund helped 264 DREAMers, as they are called, go to college. As long as the students stay continuously enrolled in class, maintain a 3.0 GPA, and keep their DACA status, they receive up to $25,000 toward the costs of attaining their bachelor’s degrees. According to TheDream.US, the fund is the first of its kind to help students with DACA status complete their college educations.

Ackman and Graham are hoping that their latest $30 million give will encourage funders big and small to put up another $95 million to help at least 5,000 immigrant youth earn their bachelor’s degrees.