All In: The Many Partners Behind an Effort to Boost College Access in One City

The most vexing challenge in the higher education space nowadays is how to make college affordable for a majority of Americans, particularly low- and modest-income students. It's a challenge with many interrelated moving parts including curbing escalating tuition, providing better access to financial aid, and ensuring students save money.

Some funders opt to tackle one piece of this puzzle at a time. Others—and dare I say, most funders—mysteriously avoid what are perhaps the most critical issues entirely, which are rising tuition and steadily decreasing government support for higher ed. Meanwhile, grantmakers like the Kansas City-based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation address multiple challenges simultaneously. In its case, it can be summed up in two words: scholarships and savings.

The grantmaker recently announced the launch of KC Scholars, a new scholarship and college savings program that, in tandem with 70 community partners, aims to help low- and modest-income students, as well as adult learners, finance and complete a college education. Kauffman isn't messing around. It's investing $79 million in the program over the next 10 years. 

This is an interesting effort to analyze, as many local funders wrestle with the question of what they can do to expand college access in their communities and look to enlist new partners in this effort

The new program consists of three opportunities. The first includes 250 awards to be given to students currently enrolled in 11th grade. Awardees will receive up to $10,000 per year, paid directly to the college, renewable up to five years. The second type of scholarship is Adult Learners, and provides 200 awards for adults age 24 and older who have previously earned at least 12 college credits but did not receive a postsecondary degree. Awardees will receive up to $5,000 per year, paid directly to the college, renewable up to five years.

Third, the program's College Savings Match, incentivizes high school students to resist the urge to upgrade to the new iPhone—then again, I have no idea what "the kids" are into nowadays, anyway—by promising up to 1,000 one-time awards to be given annually to students in 9th grade, who will receive $25 in a 529 college savings plan. Of those, 50 will be selected to receive a four-to-one match, not to exceed $5,000, with the potential for an additional $2,000 for students who achieve college-ready milestones during high school.

So, what to make of all of this?

First off, the gift is classic Kauffman Foundation. While this funder is best known for its support of entrepreneurs, it's also serious about higher education, especially in the Kansas City region.

Second, it's another example of a funder using collective impact approaches that mobilize diverse stakeholders around a common goal. The dozens of partners involved in this initiative come from multiple sectors and worked together for nearly a year to put KC Scholars together.

Third, it's a reminder of the strong economic logic behind backing higher ed access at the local level. While this issue is often framed in equity terms in national debates, many actors within communities understand just how important expanding college is to ensuring greater prosperity in cities and regional economies. As we report often, major corporations in particular have gotten hip to the need to educate more skilled workers, particularly from diverse backgrounds, in order to meet future labor demands. This understanding is fueling a new spike in education philanthropy, especially related to STEM fields. 

That economic logic is core to the rationale of the KC Scholars Program, and is surely one reason that Kauffman found so many community partners ready to get behind it. As Michael Roane, co-chair of the KC Scholars Implementation Committee put it: "By 2020, two out of three jobs will require more than a high school diploma. In Kansas City, we know there are not enough high school graduates entering college and completing their higher degree. 

"KC Scholars will help to close that gap, by ensuring more young students and adults receive a postsecondary education."