Inside Great Lakes Higher Education Philanthropy in 2014

Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation released its 2014 philanthropy report recently, announcing that it provided nearly $29 million in grants that year, all aimed at college readiness and access. The $28.6 million awarded by this funder in 2014 is more than 10 times what Great Lakes awarded only four years earlier.

Great Lakes offers six categories of grants, but all of them are designed to address two specific problems related to postsecondary readiness and success: academic and financial preparation among recent high school graduates, and sufficient access to support services that help college students navigate the higher education process.

The 2014 report describes the six categories of grants and the amounts awarded by the funder for that year. Those grantmaking categories, by amount of funds awarded, are:

  • $10.7 million in College Ready Grants. This category, the largest of Great Lakes’ funding programs, is designed to better prepare students for college-level math and English courses, enabling them to avoid remedial courses. College students in remedial courses, which consume time and financial aid but do not bear credit, are far less likely to complete a college degree. In 2014, the funder awarded grants to more than 30 programs that aim to help students avoid remediation. Recipients have included institutions of higher education, Boys and Girls Clubs, and community organizations and other nonprofits.
  • $9.2 million in College Success Grants to connect new college students with learning communities to boost their engagement with higher education, making them more likely to persist through college and complete their degrees. More than two dozen institutions of higher education have received grants under this program and use the funds to identify struggling freshmen students and connect them to support services designed to boost their persistence and improve their prospects for graduating.
  • $7.7 million in Career Ready Internship Grants. This program matches college students with financial need with paid internships to improve their graduation rates and post-graduation employment prospects. For this program, Great Lakes forged a deal with 19 Wisconsin colleges to team with area employers to generate paid internships for students with financial need, and the funder would pay the wages. In 2013-14, Great Lakes reported 1,200 new internship opportunities. The funder also reported that 99 percent of internship participants continued in college or graduated.
  • $1.9 million in Emergency Grant Assistance Program, which provides support for college students to meet unexpected financial emergencies, such as medical bills or major car repairs, that financial aid doesn’t cover and can derail students’ educational success. The funder reported that many recipients of these grants not only helped pay emergency expenses of students in need, but also paired the grants with referrals to resources that could help students address the underlying causes of financial problems.
  • $350,000 in Tools of the Trade Apprentice Scholarships. These grants help apprentices in various skilled trades obtain needed tools and other equipment required for their training. Great Lakes began this program with 20 such scholarships at Milwaukee Area Technical College. All but one of those recipients continued on in their respective apprenticeships. To build on that success, Great Lakes expanded the program, awarding such scholarships to 170 apprentices at 14 technical colleges in Wisconsin.
  • $115,000 in Commit to College Grants. This category strives to reduce the phenomenon known as “summer melt,” in which high school graduates admitted to college fail to show up on campus the fall after completing high school. Programs funded by these grants help keep students in touch with counselors over the summer and use text messaging to remind students of important college deadlines, such as registration and student housing.

Institutions of higher education, including community colleges, private colleges, and state universities were the main recipients of grants from Great Lakes across all six grant categories. As the funder’s name implies, nearly all of the grants went to colleges and nonprofits in the Great Lakes regions. Most recipients were in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Ohio.

As a look at Great Lakes' grantmaking activity indicates, the funder is clearly hitting some of the most critical challenges in higher education, such as high school student preparedness to avoid remedial courses in college, and support to help college students persist to graduation. Such issues have been on the radars of other funders as well. Great Lakes, however, has also addressed some lesser-known issues with its grantmaking, such as the apprenticeship scholarships. As its annual report indicates, Great Lakes starts small, looking for evidence of success before expanding the programs more broadly. We continue to be impressed with this funder and look for more successes in 2015 and beyond.