Take a Closer Look at What This Important Higher Ed Grantmaker Is Doing

Close readers of Inside Philanthropy's coverage of higher ed will notice that we pay quite a bit of attention to grantmaking by Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation. This funder doesn't always ring a bell for people outside the Midwest, where it's focused, but it's doing interesting things and its grantmaking offers a window into some important trends in higher ed philanthropy. 

To understand Great Lakes' philanthropic strategy, take a look at the funder's 2016 report. Great Lakes just released a summary of its grantmaking activity for the past year, reporting that it awarded nearly $22 million to various higher education projects.

Great Lakes employs a three-pronged strategy in its grantmaking: exploration, validation, and scaling grants. Scaling grants accounted for $11.9 million of the $21.9 million in grants that the funder awarded. Through scaling grants, the funder strives to leverage past successes by growing and expanding successful programs.

Funding highlights in the scaling grants category include a number that we've written about in the past. One of these is the Career Ready Internship program. Great Lakes awarded $2.1 million to more than a dozen community colleges to work with area employers to create paid internships for students with financial need. This expands upon an effort that Great Lakes supported in four-year universities to create paid internships that would enable low-income students greater access to the experience and career preparation offered by internships. Traditionally, many internships have been unpaid, placing financially challenged students at a disadvantage compared to their more affluent peers.

Another large grant in the scaling category, priced at more than $2 million, provided more than 2,000 grants to college students majoring in STEM fields through the funder's Great Lakes National STEM Scholarship Program.

To scale successful programs up, you first have to identify successful programs. That's where exploration grants come in. Exploration grants form the second prong of Great Lakes' funding strategy. Through these grants, the funder awards limited-term support to promising ideas and programs aligned with the funder's higher education access and success interests.

Great Lakes awarded $3.78 million in exploration grants in 2016. These included the funder's College Completion Grants program, awarded to 14 two-and four-year colleges in five states to identify and remove obstacles to college completion that may exist within their own policies and practices. Great Lakes especially encourages recipient schools to pay particular attention to issues affecting students of color and low-income students.

Another exploration grant takes aim at an irony in the world of college readiness. There is a growing recognition that college readiness cannot be measured solely by high school grades and admission test scores. Yet once high school graduates enter college, their readiness for credit-bearing courses is too often determined by a single indicator: their score on a placement exam. Students who fall short are placed in remedial courses that consume time and financial aid, but bear no credit. Students in remedial college courses are far less likely to graduate.

One of Great Lakes' exploration grants awarded nearly $1 million to the Community College Research Center in New York and policy research firm MDRC to study Multiple Measures Assessments (MMA), an alternative to placement exams that gauges student readiness for credit-bearing courses through a combination of grades, writing samples, high school transcripts, and measures of tenacity and grit.

Great Lakes also values rigorous research to identify effective programs. Through the third prong of its strategy, validation grants, the funder supports independent evaluation research of the programs it funds. In 2016, Great Lakes awarded $5,2 million in validation grants, including $3.3 million to MDRC to study whether summer enrollment improves higher education outcomes among community college students, many of whom enroll part-time or inconsistently, decreasing their likelihood of graduation.

We continue to be big fans of Great Lakes and its strategy for higher education funding. Its 2016 grantmaking appears to have set the stage for future successes, and we look forward to hearing more from this funder as 2017 continues to unfold.