Achieving Success in Postsecondary Education: Trends in Philanthropy

June 2017

Over the past decade, foundations and other entities awarding higher education grants have shifted their focus toward programs that encourage student retention and graduation, particularly for low-income and first-generation college students.


Private grant-funding activities in recent years have moved away from projects prioritized by educational institutions and toward initiatives that advance the goals of the grantor. As a result, foundations have become more inclined to finance cohorts of universities willing to align their goals with those of the foundation. This approach often has led to funding for initiatives geared toward economically disadvantaged students.

This work was discussed during a convening co-hosted by the TIAA Institute and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors:  Postsecondary Success, Debt, and Philanthropy’s Role.

Key Insights
Private philanthropy views higher education as a path to economic self-sufficiency, and wants to engage with colleges and universities to help low-income students succeed.
Foundations are now more likely to identify their own priorities for initiatives, and then seek higher education institutions to adopt those programs.
Private funders have shifted their focus from access to higher education to retention and completion of a degree.

To analyze trends in private charitable giving, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors (RPA) compiled qualitative and quantitative data on foundational grant-giving between the years 2004 and 2015. The research included interviews with five leading foundations as well as representatives from two organizations that track charitable giving in higher education: Grantmakers for Education and Penn's Center for Minority-Serving Institutions. RPA also reviewed Grantmakers for Education's annual reports on trends in educational philanthropy and original data on charitable giving gathered by the Council for Aid to Education and the Foundation Center.