This Top Funder of Higher Education Keeps Stepping Things Up


Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation isn't a household name among university development officers, given that much its money flows to a handful of states in the Midwest. But it also engages in a growing amount of national funding of research and collaborative initiatives. In fact, given recent increases of its grantmaking, Great Lakes is now one of the biggest overall philanthropic players in the higher education space. That's a good reason to pay close attention to this funder, even if you aren't in the Midwest. But another reason is that Great Lakes, as we've so often reported, is keen to back innovative ways to advance its sole mission, "helping low-income students, students of color and first-generation college students graduate from college."

This funder is always up to something interesting, working multiple avenues to help America's most disadvantaged college college students persist through school and complete their degrees.

Recently, Great Lakes released its 2017 Philanthropy Report, summarizing its 2017 grantmaking activity, and providing a preview of what to expect in 2018. In 2017, Great Lakes' 50th year, the funder made $73 million in grants, the largest amount committed in its history. By comparison, the Lumina Foundation—a better-known grantmaker laser-focused on higher ed—made $59 million in grants in 2016. 

Great Lakes' approach to higher education funding is well summed up by the title of this new report: "Building On What Works." In its push to help college students complete their education, Great Lakes employs a three-point strategy:

  • Exploration — Grants designed to explore ideas that appear promising based on the funder's past experiences or research conducted by others.
  • Validation — Grants supporting independent research and evaluation to determine if a program is effective and what conditions are most conducive to success.
  • Scaling — Grants that enable successful programs to expand, serving more students and institutionalizing practices demonstrated to be successful.

"Building On What Works" highlighted some of Great Lakes funding successes, some of which we've written about in the past.

One of its most successful programs is the Dash Emergency Grants program. This program has its roots in the funder's belief that an unexpected expense such as a large medical bill or an expensive car repair should not derail a student's education. Great Lakes awarded its first emergency grants in Wisconsin in 2012, expanding to more than 30 two-year colleges in 2016.

In 2017, Great Lakes expanded its program to four-year universities, awarding more than $7 million in grants to 32 colleges in six states. But the funder's interest does not end at helping four-year students keep on track to graduation. Great Lakes would also like to expand training on best practices for college administrators tasked with approving or denying requests for emergency financial assistance. So the funder awarded a grant of $128,000 to research organization Equal Measure to better understand how colleges decide whether to award emergency assistance grants.

Medical problems and car trouble are not the only types of expenses that can threaten the college completion plans of financially vulnerable students. Sometimes, they may owe sums to their schools like tuition or lab fees, for example, receiving a hold on their completion until the balance is cleared. Special one-time grants can make a critical difference here, too. The difference between these so-called "completion grants" and the Dash Emergency Grants is that the former are initiated by the schools themselves, while the latter are initiated by the students in need. 

In 2017, Great Lakes and the Gates Foundation awarded $4 million to the University Innovation Alliance (UIA) to evaluate the implementation of completion grants. We've written about UIA, a coalition of 11 major universities seeking to disseminate best practices aimed at retaining and graduating more low-income and first-generation college students.

The grant to UIA is not the sole instance of Great Lakes partnering with other funders to boost student success and college completion. In 2017, Great Lakes joined forces with the Gates and Kresge foundations to support Strong Start to Finish. Launched with a total of $13 million from the trio of funders, Strong Start to Finish strives to help more students get through introductory English and math courses and into an academic program during the first year of college. Research has shown that students who successfully complete required English and math courses in the first year of college multiply their chances of completing their degrees.

These gateway English and math courses are often major obstacles for low-income students and students of color, who are disproportionately placed in developmental courses that consume time and financial aid, but do not bear course credit. Many of these students drop out, while those placed in the gateway courses often struggle academically without access to supports. Strong Start to Finish hopes to change that and boost college graduation rates, which have stagnated at just under 60 percent for the last few years.

Academic struggles, whether in the first year of college or later, not only imperil a student's chances of degree completion; they can also place financial aid at risk if students are placed on academic probation for failing to maintain satisfactory performance, which the U.S. Department of Education defines as a grade point average of at least 2.0 and satisfactory completion of at least two-thirds of attempted credits. To help alleviate the problems associated with academic probation, Great Lakes awarded policy research firm MDRC $1 million to explore policies that prevent students from completing credits. 

In addition to summarizing its 2017 activities, Great Lakes also whetted our appetite for future grantmaking in 2018. So what's coming next?

Great Lakes outlined three new grant initiatives. The funder will work with the RAND Corporation and the Minnesota Department of Corrections to expand access to career and technical education for incarcerated students, improving their chances for employment upon release. Great Lakes will also join with Kresge and the National College Access Network on an initiative aimed at increasing federal financial aid application rates. Finally, the funder is awarding a planning grant to the Aspen Institute for a program to increase degree completion among transfer students. You can bet we will be watching these and other activities from Great Lakes.