Jennifer Zeisler is Senior Program Director, Career Readiness at the ECMC Foundation. Jennifer has served on the Workforce Matters Steering Committee since 2020. You can find her on Twitter at @JenniferZeisler.
WFM: Can you tell us three things that will help Workforce Matters members get to know you?
My lifelong commitment to education began at birth – I survived having my mom as a teacher from Kindergarten to 12th grade and my dad as a professor for all four years of college – both were music educators. I played the oboe and credit the arts for teaching me the importance of individual commitment and group collaboration.
Nearly 20 years ago I rode a bicycle from San Francisco, CA, to Washington, DC, in just over two months. It was an incredible experience, which afforded me the opportunity to see and connect with people and places across the country and exposed me to the wide range of needs and opportunities across populations and geographies.
I served as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer (2005-2007) in Armenia (բարեւ ձեզ) focused on NGO Development. My time in the Peace Corps helped me learn to thrive in unstructured settings and reinforced the importance of personal and professional relationships.
WFM: How have your past experiences informed your approach to workforce development grantmaking?
I started my journey as a grantmaker nearly 30 years ago when I had the unique opportunity to serve as a youth advisor to my local community foundation. Inspired by this participatory grantmaking experience, I eventually pursued graduate studies at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Today, I oversee ECMC Foundation’s grantmaking strategy focused on improving postsecondary career and technical education outcomes for students from underserved backgrounds.
Each of my previous work, volunteer, and educational experiences have informed the development of my current grantmaking strategy and funding approach. Across these experiences – including part-time jobs teaching skiing and waiting tables; volunteer engagements with the United States Peace Corps and Big Brothers, Big Sisters; and full-time positions with organizations like the Clinton Foundation and a host of nonprofit organizations, higher education institutions, and philanthropic entities – I have worked directly with young people and university students, planned events and fundraised, and managed grantmaking programs and consulted to support others.
My previous experiences emphasized the importance of incorporating student-centered approaches. I learned to acknowledge learning styles, program a mix of on-campus coursework and work-based learning, and elevate students' voices and experiences in decision-making. These prior experiences also taught me how to build and maintain relationships, assess impact, effectively communicate activities and accomplishments, and convene partners across discipline and geography.
WFM: Can you tell us about one of your recent grantmaking initiatives? What do you hope to accomplish? What are you learning?
One of the initiatives I am most proud of is ECMC Foundation’s pathbreaking investment in the success of single mother students. When I started my role at ECMC Foundation in 2015, I visited postsecondary programs and met with students, typically independent adult learners, participating in career and technical education programs to learn more about what motivated them to obtain a postsecondary credential – and also to understand what barriers stood in their way. At program after program, I met women who talked about the challenges they faced as single mother students and their drive to achieve financial security, passion for helping others, and commitment to finding personal success and serving as a positive role model for their children, family, and community. While we knew CTE programs are more likely to enroll independent students, there was no disaggregated data to indicate the size and needs of the single mother student population.
Over the next five years, ECMC Foundation’s Career Readiness team invested $6.4 million across 13 grants to better understand single mother students — who they are and what supports can help bolster their success. Based on work we supported from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, we now know that there are 1.7 million single mothers pursuing undergraduate degrees, the largest subset of the student parent population that represents one in 10 of all U.S. undergraduates. We also know that single mother students face significant financial strains and demands on their time: nine in 10 live at or below the poverty line, and they spend an average of nine hours per day caregiving on top of school and, often, work. Just 11% of single mothers enrolled in an associate degree program complete their degree on time.
Again and again, learnings from the work of our grantees pointed to how central the success of single mother students is to solving some of the biggest issues – poverty, economic mobility, gender equity, and racial justice – facing the philanthropic sector. Disproportionately women of color, nearly half of single mother students attend community colleges, where they pursue degrees in health care, information technology, and other middle-skill sectors that have the potential to fuel the country’s economic engine. They know that earning a college degree pays off, and they are right: Single mothers with an associate degree are nearly half as likely to live in poverty as those with a high school diploma.
We learned a lot and saw positive progress, but more needs to be done to achieve the transformative change single mothers in higher education deserve. ECMC Foundation remains the only national foundation focused on the college success of single mothers. Over the next five years, we will nearly double our initial investments in single mother students, committing $10 million toward increasing the share of single mother students who attain an associate degree within six years of enrolling at a community college. But there remains ample opportunity for other funders to invest in an equitable economic recovery by ensuring that single mother students have access to the fulfilling careers that will allow them to support a thriving family.