Higher education philanthropy is a field dominated by giants, with names such as Gates, Ford, and Lumina. The Kresge Foundation may not command the name recognition of these players, but the Michigan-based funder is one of the country's most significant foundations supporting higher education projects.
Like those higher-profile funders, Kresge's work emphasizes college access and success—"to and through," as the foundation likes to say. The foundation targets historically underrepresented student populations, such as African-Americans, Hispanics, American Indians, and low-income students in general.
The larger context for this work is the foundation's overall commitment to "helping improve the lives of poor and low-income children and adults and underserved urban and rural communities," as well as its belief "in the intrinsic benefits of diversity."
Kresge sees the issues of opportunity and race as closely linked. Even as a college degree has become more important than ever for achieving economic security, young people of color—who constitute the fastest growing part of the U.S. population—are the least likely to go to college, or to finish. Meanwhile, public investments in higher ed have been declining and tuition costs have been rising.
But Kresge see positive trends in the sector, too, including new technologies for learning, a new push to control the costs of higher ed, and new models for organizing postsecondary education.
Other higher ed funders back similar areas with motivations similar to Kresge's. What makes Kresge stand out is a strategic approach that not only strives to prepare underrepresented students for success, but also bolsters the capacity of the institutions and networks that serve them.
Kresge streamlined its education program in 2012 to emphasize two major U.S. initiatives: Pathways To and Through College, and Strengthening Institutions.
The Pathways initiative strives to ensure that more low-income and underrepresented students have access to a college education, plus the skills and support to improve their chances of success, culminating in two- and four-year degrees.
The complementary program, Strengthening Institutions, is intended to help community colleges, HBCUs, and other schools that serve Kresge's target student populations deliver quality higher education at a lower cost. (A third Kresge program targets higher education in South Africa.)
Recent grant recipients under Kresge's Pathways program include the Asian and Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund, which provides academic, financial, and personal support to Asian-American and Pacific Islander students, and the Yes We Must Coalition, an alliance that seeks to increase degree attainment by historically underrepresented students at small independent colleges.
More recently, Kresge gave over $1 million to provide mentoring, college counseling, and financial aid to Los Angeles County youths.
Schools and organizations receiving grants under the Strengthening Institutions program include Community College of Baltimore County, the New Jersey Council of County Colleges, and Connecticut State Colleges and Universities.
Historically black colleges and universities are a favorite cause for the Kresge Foundation. In the past, Kresge has funded Morehouse and Spellman colleges in Atlanta, but generally it steers clear of supporting programs at individual institutions and instead funds broader organizations and networks, like the Southern Education Foundation and the United Negro College Fund. Networks and groups that focus on community colleges should also keep Kresge's number handy. In the past, the funder has supported the American Association of Community Colleges and the Foundation for California Community Colleges.
Recently, Kresge joined forces with Gates, Lumina, and other funders to support the University Innovation Alliance (UIA), a coalition of nearly a dozen major state universities looking to develop a playbook of successful practices for increasing degree completion among low-income and underrepresented students.
This step underscores another notable point about Kresge: It believes strongly in collaborative efforts to tackle the challenge of getting low-income Americans to and through college. The foundation has made recent investments in other national initiatives beyond the UIA, such as Achieving the Dream, which works to help increase the success of community college students of color, and the Gateway to College National Network, which includes dozens of schools that help homeless and other hard-to-serve students get a high school degree and earn college credits.
Again, a key point to bear in mind with Kresge is that its higher-ed funding tends to bypass individual schools in favor of funding work that that has "broad, meaningful impact beyond the boundaries of any one campus." The foundation also says that it rarely funds organizations with budgets under $1 million, so this isn't the place that's likely to back your cool startup.
Last point about this funder: Kresge is super-clear about its grantmaking process and stands as a quite accessible funder.