Community colleges are critical partners in kresge’s equity-focused higher ed program. Jennifer G. Lang/shutterstock
Community colleges are critical partners in kresge’s equity-focused higher ed program. Jennifer G. Lang/shutterstock

IP Funder Spotlights offer up quick rundowns of the grantmakers that are on our radar, including a few key details on how they operate and what they’re up to right now. Today, we take a look at an almost century-old Midwestern funder’s higher education work.

What this funder cares about

Kresge’s Education Program works to increase college access and success, advance economic mobility and strengthen urban communities, all while working to reduce equity gaps.

It funds organizations and networks of institutions that prioritize improving the educational outcomes of students with low incomes, especially those living in cities, and underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, including first-generation students; Black, Indigenous, and people of color; veterans; and immigrant students.

Kresge does this by funding three strategic focus areas: one centered on improving pathways to college in urban areas, one that helps institutions build better capacity to improve student outcomes, and one dedicated to strengthening and aligning urban higher education ecosystems.

Kresge’s higher ed grantmaking strategies have been explicitly committed to supporting college access and success for underrepresented and BIPOC students since 2010.

Why you should care

Kresge’s education program made $10.7 million in grants in 2020, so it’s a major player, but the foundation is also funding critical and timely work in higher education. Student access and access for historically underrepresented students are the most pressing issues for higher ed grantmakers right now, and Kresge’s adaptive approach, which has been in place for over a decade, is well worth keeping an eye on.

Recent data from the National College Attainment Network speaks to the urgency of the situation. In March, the network reported that applications for federal financial aid were down 9% compared to the same time in 2020, suggesting that low-income and working-class students are taking a “wait and see” approach regarding their college aspirations. There’s a real concern among leaders in the field that students won’t come back at all, or they’ll come back much later.

Most higher ed funders’ first priority is getting kids into college—or back into college. Kresge’s work is especially important since it focuses on universities serving the kinds of students most likely to postpone college due to the pandemic—community colleges, minority-serving institutions like HBCUs, as well as some public four-year colleges.

But getting students into college is only half the battle. Before the pandemic struck, Pell Grant recipients graduated at a rate of 18 percentage points lower than non-Pell recipients. Funders worry that the crisis will further widen this gap, underscoring Kresge’s goal of ensuring that once students make it into college, they stay in and succeed.

Where the money comes from

Kresge was established in 1924, with $1.3 million, by Sebastian Kresge, the founder of two popular department store chains. His stores eventually evolved into the iconic Kmart brand.

Where the money goes

Kresge funds work nationally, with concentrated funding in Michigan, Florida, California and Texas, and a growing body of grantees in the foundation’s priorities cities—Detroit, Memphis and New Orleans. Kresge occasionally funds work outside of its three strategies, if funding will reinforce its work in the arenas of policy, advocacy and communications/media. The program’s most recent RFP will fund research and innovation to expand and improve free college programs, working with community colleges across the country.

Recent updates 

In 2021, the foundation adjusted its grantmaking tactics to respond to pandemic-related challenges and opportunities emerging from the new Biden administration. Those include mitigating declines in first-time college enrollment, strengthening college promise programs, sustaining and securing equity-driven student success solutions, prioritizing student persistence, and supporting “comebacker” and transfer students.

This was an astute move because the pandemic has shown us that the idea of college being an uninterrupted four-year experience on a leafy campus is becoming increasingly anachronistic for a growing number of students.

Take this idea of “comebacker students,” or former students returning to school. Kresge considers these students to be displaced workers seeking to upskill, former students looking to return to college, students looking to transfer elsewhere. The pandemic created an unprecedented wave of comebacker students, and many universities are still on pre-2020 footing. The foundation is working to ensure that institutional practices can scale to meet these students’ unique needs.

Kresge will also be prioritizing “student persistence” to keep students connected to their studies and basic needs outside the classroom including food, housing, internet connectivity and mental health resources.

One cool thing to know 

Earlier this year, Kresge partnered with ECMC Foundation, SeaChange Capital Partners and Ascendium Education Group to launch the Transformational Partnership Fund, which encourages university leaders to anonymously explore cross-institution partnerships, including mergers and consolidated academic offerings, to reduce costs and improve student outcomes.

This is unique because foundations don’t often occupy themselves with initiatives that attempt to bend the higher ed cost curve. Leaders don’t want to be perceived as telling administrators how to do their jobs. It’s an understandable position for grantmakers to take, but it’s also unfortunate, since their support to boost access—think scholarships—reaches a point of diminishing returns as long as tuition keeps going up.

It’s also cool, because university leaders, on the whole, rarely pursue partnerships for fear that it could signal to the public that the school is in trouble. “Public candor about an institution’s financial health can impact donations and applications,” said Bill Moses, Kresge’s managing director of education. The pandemic, of course, changed leaders’ calculus, and Kresge and its partners have given them a venue to pursue collaborations anonymously without stirring up unrest and concern among the alumni ranks.