Here Are the Top Foundations Working to Reduce College Dropout Rates

With all of the attention focused on college readiness and access to higher education, until recently there was less attention given to the other side of the equation: ensuring that these students stay in college and complete their degrees. This means reducing the alarming high dropout rates at many institutions of higher education, especially community colleges. 

For decades, funders and policymakers pushed various remedies to prepare more studentsespecially from underrepresented populationsfor higher education, and to boost college enrollment rates. Get more students through the admissions door, the thinking went, and they will be successful.

But many students continue to arrive on campus without actually being ready to succeed, making it clear that much work remains in the areas of college readiness. In turn, those academic challenges—as well as financial hurdles—help explain why high percentages of students drop out before completing a degree. Increasingly, college completion has commanded the attention of policymakers and funders alike. Recent studies suggest that only 57 percent of entering college students will complete a bachelor’s degree. At community colleges, the rates are far worse, with completion rates estimated at less than 40 percent. Sadly, many dropouts find themselves carrying student, but without the credentials needed to boost their earnings. 

When President Obama recently unveiled his proposal for making community college free for qualified students, critics seized upon the high dropout rates at many community colleges to brand the proposal as a dubious use of tax funds. With a conservative majority in Congress, institutions of higher education are unlikely to see a funding increase—for college completion initiatives or much of anything else.

All this heightens the importance of support from the philanthropic sector to help colleges reduce their dropout rates. Here are some of the leading funders supporting projects to boost college completion and reduce dropout rates, with links to our background guides on what they fund in the higher ed realm. 

GATES FOUNDATION 

Bill Gates was himself a college dropout, but he recognizes he was the exception. While Gates went on to become one of the world’s wealthiest men, the majority of college dropouts are not so successful, leaving school without a marketable credential.

For a funder the size of the Gates Foundation, it is difficult to summarize its college completion work in a sentence or two. In general, the funder is interested in projects that tailor college work to students’ educational interests and career goals. Recently, Gates allied with other funders to support the University Innovation Alliance (UIA), a group of 11 major universities working to disseminate best practices for helping retain and graduate more low-income college students. Other funders supporting the UIA include Lumina, Kresge, Ford, USA Funds, and Markle.

In addition to UIA, Gates has funded initiatives to make it easier for nontraditional students to earn credits and degrees, to increase college completion rates among Latino students, and helped coordinate efforts by an alliance of states to increase college completion rates.

LUMINA FOUNDATION

It will come as no surprise to IP readers that Lumina is active in the push to reduce college dropout rates. The Indiana-based funder is one of leading foundations in the higher education funding space, and we write often about their grantmaking. 

Lumina’s Goal 2025 initiative strives to increase the proportion of Americans with college or similar credentials to 60 percent by the year 2025. That goal drives nearly all of Lumina’s funding activities, which focus largely on state and federal policies that increase degree attainment, new systems of quality higher education credentials, and mobilizing regions to increase college completion. Like Gates, Lumina is a major force behind the UIA. 

FORD FOUNDATION

One of the largest and best-known foundations in the world, Ford approaches college completion in the name of its higher education initiative: Higher Education for Social Justice. Ford focuses on ensuring college success for low-income and marginalized students and has taken on the college completion challenge in a variety of ways. Its grantmaking has sought to address the financial challenges that can drive poorer students off campus, but it's also recognized the importance of providing stronger academic supports for these students so they get the help they need to succeed in their courses. 

USA FUNDS

This independent guarantor of student loans also operates a philanthropic branch that promotes what it calls college “completion with a purpose.” The funder is interested in projects that better align education and work force needs, help students complete college sooner and at a reduced cost, develop data analytic tools to inform higher education decisions by policymakers, educators, and families.

GREAT LAKES HIGHER EDUCATION GUARANTY

Here’s another student loan servicer that also is involved in college access and completion programs. Great Lakes took a look at the extensive network of advisors and support staff available to students at elite institutions such as Harvard and Yale, and asked: Why not extend such support to underrepresented college students in community colleges? In City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) intervention, the funder found the kind of program it was looking for. ASAP extends financial and other types of support to disadvantaged CUNY community college students, and the program appears to have boosted community college graduation rates among participants. Great Lakes is now funding efforts to replicate this program in three Ohio community colleges.

The funder also has funded programs at other colleges to better prepare students for college-level work and to keep them on track for graduation. Despite its name, Great Lakes does not limit its work to states in the upper Midwest.

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In addition to these funders, there are many local and regional foundations that support programs and projects aimed at reducing college dropout rates and boosting college completion. Organizations and agencies with ideas for improving college retention and completion, especially among historically underrepresented populations, should be able to find a lot of sources of support for their ideas.

As well, it's important to note that more funders are supporting work to connect colleges and students with employers in different ways. Students are more likely to finish school if they see clearly how their degrees will lead to promising careers. As well, connecting employers to higher ed institutions, and especially community colleges, ensures that course work is relevant to the needs of the local economy.

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