Two Big Foundations, Two Big Goals

This article is a sidebar to “The Old College Try,” Philanthropy, spring 2010.

After Warren Buffett pledged the lion’s share of his fortune (the gift was valued at $37 billion at the time) to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2006, the foundation had an opportunity to expand its portfolio. “After tons of research and meeting with policy experts, practitioners, and other foundations, we came back to what has been the foundation’s domestic focus for the past eight years . . . because the evidence spoke clearly,” said Hilary Pennington, the Gates Foundation’s director of education, post-secondary success, and special initiatives, in 2008. “The highest-leverage investment we can make—education. This time, post-secondary education. And even more specifically, post-secondary success.”

Gates’s target: doubling the number of low-income Americans who complete a post-secondary credential by age 26. The foundation’s $450 million strategy is three-pronged: improving the performance of the higher ed system, helping students to succeed, and shifting the policy environment to favor degree completion.

Likewise, in 2009, the billion-dollar Lumina Foundation for Education announced its “big goal” (“To increase the proportion of Americans with high-quality degrees and credentials to 60 percent by the year 2025”) and re-oriented its signature programs—Know How to Go, Making Opportunity Affordable, and Achieving the Dream—accordingly. “We’re adapting them and integrating them into our new strategic plan, which focuses on the issue of getting students financially and academically prepared for college, dramatically raising the success rates for students in college, and improving the productivity of institutions,” says Lumina’s senior vice president for program development, James Applegate. “We’re not thinking about this as traditional grantmaking activity. We have to use all the tools available to philanthropy.” Lumina is also working to improve institutional data collection so that it better captures non-traditional students, such as adults and part-time students.