What a Regional Foundation Is Doing to Graduate Kids From College

photo: Anna Jurkovska/shutterstock

photo: Anna Jurkovska/shutterstock

Regular readers of Inside Philanthropy know how much attention we've given to the efforts by multiple funders to increase college completion rates. This challenge has moved increasingly to the fore amid the realization that helping more disadvantaged kids graduate from high school and enroll in college is no guarantee of upward mobility, since a great many of these young people never finish their degrees. 

Funders are coming at this problem from many angles. 

Just last week, we summarized the 2017 grantmaking activities of the Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation, which in that year, provided more than $70 million in grants to help college students stay on track toward graduation. These grants include emergency financial assistance and help with successfully completing required English and math courses during the critical first year of college. 

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Great Lakes has certainly raised its profile and the scope of its grantmaking to increase college completion, but it is hardly alone in this space. A network of funders that includes Gates and Kresge has thrown its support behind the University Innovation Alliance (UIA), a collaborative network of universities researching and disseminating best practices for helping disadvantaged students persist and complete their degrees. The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation helps low-income and first-generation students fulfill higher education dreams through its Dell Scholars program.

The Daniels Fund is another player focused on college completion. The Colorado-based funder is not a new player in this arena, but its presence has been growing. In 2017, Daniels distributed nearly $56 million in grants and scholarships. This includes its signature program, the Daniels Scholarship program. Daniels has been awarding these scholarships since 2000, the year of the fund's inception. The foundation began after the death of its founder, entrepreneur Bill Daniels, a pioneer in cable television.

While we've often noted the cultural and academic obstacles students can face in college, another challenge also looms large for many young people: finding the money to pay for school. That's where Daniels comes in. 

The Daniels Scholarship Program provides scholarships for about 230 students in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico each year. This program and another scholarship program for non-traditional students account for about 30 percent of the fund's grantmaking activity, according to a recent annual report. The Daniels Scholarship Program is not an academic scholarship, strictly speaking, but Bruce Wilmsen, vice president for media and community relations, states that scholarship recipients should demonstrate academic promise, as well as embody the following principles: strong character, leadership potential, a commitment to community service, and a well-rounded personality. 

Eligibility for a Daniels scholarship also requires financial need, as well as meeting certain minimum scores on the ACT or SAT. Reflecting Daniels' geographic focus, recipients must be residents of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah or Wyoming. About half of Daniels scholars are first-generation college students, according to Wilmsen.

The selection process for Daniels scholars is competitive. The funder selects about 230 students a year, but Wilmsen said the foundation receives about 2,000 applications a year. The scholarship is a "last-dollar" program, secondary to other forms of financial assistance received by Daniels Scholars. After considering other forms of scholarships and financial aid, as well as work-study and family contributions, the Daniels Fund pays each scholar's remaining costs, which vary from student to student.

While Daniels Scholars are from a four-state region, the assistance they receive from Daniels can be used at any accredited four-year college or university. If students attend a two-year college, they must be on a path to complete a bachelor's degree. The Daniels Fund has partnerships with two dozen colleges and universities in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. These partner institutions include multiple University of Colorado campuses, University of New Mexico, Eastern New Mexico University, University of Utah, and University of Wyoming. There is an added financial benefit to attending these and other partner schools because the Daniels Fund will cover the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) portion of the students' expenses. Wilmsen said the majority of Daniels Scholars opt to attend partner schools.

While in college, Daniels Scholars must meet a series of requirements, including maintaining a minimum grade point average and fulfilling a work requirement. Wilmsen said the fund has a new requirement that students take their critical math courses within their first two years of school.

Daniels' investment in these scholars is not, however, limited to writing a check. Daniels Fund staff serve as scholar relations officers, with whom the scholars maintain communication and provide updates on their progress. In addition, a network of program alumni act as mentors and provide peer-to-peer support for current Daniels Scholars. Through this network, Wilmsen said scholars have an additional point of contact for help and advice.  

This combination of financial assistance and ongoing personal support is showing success. According to Daniels Fund figures, about 75 percent of its scholars complete college in four years. Among one cohort, 80 percent completed in four or more years. These rates exceed the national average for all students—and are way above the college graduation rates for low-income students, which have averaged around 25 percent.