On April 12th, Workforce Matters – in collaboration with our colleagues at Grantmakers for Education - convened a group of funders to discuss community college grantmaking strategies, with a focus on approaches that expand access, promote student success, and ensure that student investments in community college education meet individual needs and provide value, particularly for students of color and other groups that have been historically underrepresented or underserved by higher education.

Quanic Fullard of the Annie E. Casey Foundation kicked off the conversation by providing some context for our discussion. She noted that the pandemic and its aftereffects have heightened awareness of the precarious financial situation many students face, especially students of color. Worried about their ability to pay for classes and/or struggling to meet the basic needs of their families, many students have delayed or reconsidered plans to enroll (or continue) in higher education.

Quanic also mentioned that there are indications that this crisis will have a longer-term impact on postsecondary attainment. For example, Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completion rates among high school seniors from low-income families are down over the last two years, and enrollment is down by 10 percent at community colleges.

On the bright side, higher education systems —particularly community colleges —continue to evolve and adapt to student needs and a changing operating environment. In addition, policymakers have responded with an unprecedented influx of federal and state dollars to support students and institutions hit hardest by the pandemic, yet much of this relief funding will expire in about two years.

Next, Susan Dundon of the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation and Jennifer Zeisler of ECMC Foundation shared brief overviews of their foundation’s community college grantmaking strategies, discussed how their grantmaking has evolved over time, and highlighted some of their key lessons learned. Susan discussed the Detroit Drives Degrees Community College Collaborative (D3C3), a cross-sector, regional initiative that is driving change around three clusters of work:

  • Student Success: Updating, creating, and/or redesigning systems to maximize credit attainment, completion, and employment outcomes
  • K12 Alignment: Increasing access and enrollment in community colleges for high school student
  • Sector-Based Pathways: Aligning academic programs to credentials of immediate value through employer-led sector strategies

Participating funders were particularly interested in learning more about how Detroit has fostered cross-college collaboration among regional community colleges.

Jennifer provided an overview of ECMC’s community college investments, noting that 57% of ECMC Foundation’s Career Readiness and College Success grant funding has supported community colleges and the organizations that serve them. Some of the lessons learned that she lifted up included:

  • Partner with local institutions to smooth career progressions. Effective partnerships between local community organizations and employers can help create pathways to better jobs for more students.
  • Align credit and non-credit tracks for across-the-board student success. Short-term credentials and longer-term academic opportunities do not have to be mutually exclusive.
  • Prioritize data collection to support continuous improvement, but note that data-driven decision-making must be done in a way that centers equity and incorporates the perspectives of the groups most affected.

Jennifer also noted that single mothers – who comprise more than 1 in 10 college students - need better access to child care, housing, transportation, and other basic needs to persist through degree completion. More information on ECMC Foundations’s work can be found in their recent publication, Reflecting on Six Years of Grantmaking to Support Community Colleges.

Following the panel discussion, participants split up into small groups to discuss their organizations’ theory of change re: community colleges, key lessons learned, questions and challenges they’re wrestling with, and opportunities for further funder-to-funder collaboration.

Participating funders noted an interest in learning more about the following topics from peers and experts:

  • Re-engaging students following the recent decline in community college enrollment
  • Embedding apprenticeship offerings at community colleges
  • Promoting regional collaboration among community colleges
  • Strategies to meet the needs of diverse student populations
  • Supporting student basic needs, including mental health
  • Best practices in aligning non-credit and for-credit programs

Several funders also expressed interest in generally learning more about who’s funding what in the community college landscape. Workforce Matters shared a high-level report on community college grantmaking from Candid Foundation Maps with the group following the call and encouraged participating grantmakers to consider submitting their grantmaking data to Candid to help increase the transparency and visibility of community college grantmaking and related efforts.

Participants also lifted up a number of potential areas of funder-to-funder collaboration, including:

  • Sharing best practices to advance equity, including approaches to using disaggregated data
  • Strategizing around options to support community college efforts to address COVID-19 related enrollment declines
  • Brainstorming around how to help community colleges sustain programming when the recent infusion of resources begins to wane
  • Growing the availability of technical assistance for community colleges
  • Sharing best practices for shaping equitable and effective policies
  • Collaborating to support learn-and-earn and work-based learning options at community colleges

We expect to continue the community college grantmaking discussion at our November 2022 convening in Washington, DC so we hope that you’ll consider joining us there. In the meantime, please let us know if you’re a workforce development grantmaker who is interested in staying abreast of our community college programming.