Across the Finish Line: What's Behind a Campus Gift From Netflix's Reed Hastings?

photo:  catwalker/shutterstock

photo:  catwalker/shutterstock

Early last year, Netflix CEO and founder Reed Hastings and his wife Patricia Ann Quillin stepped up their philanthropy in a big way, launching the $100 million Hastings Fund through the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

The announcement was important for two reasons. First—and most obviously—its size. While Hastings and Quillin had been passionate about education for years, and active givers in this space, the fund represented a major commitment to future giving. The couple are signatories of the Giving Pledge and Forbes estimates that Hastings is worth $1.8 billion. Second, while Hastings and Quillin are best known for their giving on issues like K-12 reform and charter schools, the Hastings Fund centered on college scholarships.

A recent $5 million gift from Hastings to his alma mater, Bowdoin College, underscores that his interest in higher ed goes beyond scholarships. The donation will fund the development of a new program, known as THRIVE, to "substantially transform the college experience and improve the graduation rates of low-income students, first-generation students and those students traditionally underrepresented on college campuses."

The gift finds Hastings focusing on a challenge across the higher ed landscape that's lately engaged more funders—namely, that low-income and first generation students often struggle to complete degrees. Getting these kids into college turns out to only be part of the equation; getting them through college can be far tougher. 

Colleges continue to admit a record number of culturally diverse students. That's a good thing. The hitch is that a school's existing support systems may not be designed to transition these students effectively into college life and drive positive outcomes like improved graduation rates. 

According to school officials, the entering Class of 2021 is the "most culturally diverse and socioeconomically representative class" in Bowdoin’s history. That said, according to Bowdoin President Clayton Rose, “Many studies, and our own experience, clearly show that incredibly talented and successful students from low-income families or who are the first in their families to attend college... often have more difficulty transitioning to college and taking full advantage of all we have to offer."

And so Hasting's gift will bring THRIVE up to scale by providing comprehensive academic programming as well as support and skills development for participating students prior to matriculation. THRIVE will also support these students throughout their college careers in "taking full advantage of the resources and opportunities that Bowdoin provides."

Hastings' gift shares the same spirit of the Hastings Fund, which has dispersed at least $1.5 million so far with the aim of providing students of color "exceptional post-secondary educational experiences." Its initial grantees were the Hispanic Foundation of Silicon Valley and the United Negro College Fund.

Add it all up, and it's easy to place the Bowdoin gift into the "higher education" bucket. That would be a mistake. Zoom out a bit further, and Hastings' gift integrates with a larger and more holistic framework.

You could make a strong argument that a majority of university support systems were originally designed with traditional public or private school graduates in mind. The slow and steady growth of charter schools, however, is forcing these systems to adapt. More incoming freshmen at places like Bowdoin hail from charter schools, perhaps Hastings' most cherished cause. Many come from communities of color in high-poverty neighborhoods. They're the kind of kids who rarely went to college in the past. Making sure they succeed on campus is critical to the larger project of social mobility that drives charter funders like Hastings. 

Hastings will sit on THRIVE's informal oversight committee, along with other educators with "deep experience with traditional public, charter and private schools, and with the challenges facing less well-prepared students and students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds."

Bottom line? Hasting's gift complements his work in the charter school field by transitioning diverse students to the often bewildering world of college life.

Hastings said, "Making sure that these great students have the opportunity to fully experience a college education and to graduate on time is a critical challenge facing higher education. Clayton and I share the same goals for Bowdoin, and I am delighted to be able to help the College to develop the programming and capabilities to make this a reality."