After Millions Spent, Is There Progress on Boosting College Graduation Rates?

Over the past two years, we've reported on various efforts by a wide range of foundations to boost college graduation rates for underrepresented student groups, including first-generation students and those from low-income families. National, regional, and local funders have all engaged this effort, pulling just about every lever they can think of to increase college completion. It's a great example of philanthropy mobilizing around a problem, with a recent torrent of funding amid rising awareness that first-generation college students, especially those from low-income backgrounds, had alarmingly low graduation rates. 

Related: Here Are the Top Foundations Working to Reduce College Dropout Rates

So where do things stand now? Are all these millions that foundations are spending to increase college graduations showing any results?

Well, according to the University Innovation Alliance (UIA), the answer is a resounding yes.

We've written about the UIA before. In 2014, the heads of some of the largest public research universities joined forces around a common goal: boost the number of college-educated Americans from all backgrounds, especially low-income and first-generation students. UIA represents a way for these universities to share ideas, interventions, and practices that individual schools have found successful in boosting student success, regardless of a particular student’s socioeconomic circumstances.

Related: The Other Half of the Battle: Funders Bet on Push to Keep Low-Income Kids in College

Recently, UIA reported that its member schools are on track to increase the combined number of degrees conferred each year by nearly 20 percent. Over the next 10 years, this means 94,000 more college graduates than they would have had prior to the alliance.

A who’s who of higher education funders support UIA, including the Ford, Kresge, Gates, Lumina and Markle foundations, and USA Funds. Their support was matched by member universities, which include Ohio State University, Georgia State, Purdue, Michigan State, Arizona State, University of California at Riverside, and the University of Texas.

So this is quite an impressive collaboration with lots of moving parts.  

UIA works at multiple levels, with the bulk of the effort occurring among campus-based student success teams. These teams work with a UIA project manager who coordinates an individual campus’ actions to increase student success. At another level, university institutional research and data experts define data and metrics to share. Enrollment and financial aid administrators collaborate to discuss federal financial aid and advocate for changes. Finally, at the top, university presidents and chancellors meet quarterly to set the big goals and determine how the work will be advanced.

Federal officials are taking notice, too. In addition to foundation funds, UIA has also received an $8.9 million federal grant to launch a random control trial to identify what interventions are most successful with first-generation college students.