When a grantee suggested a landscape analysis of its field to identify barriers and best practices, our foundation questioned it. Our founders worried the analysis would take too much time, and wasn’t action-oriented. But we trusted the organization and moved ahead with about $70K to fund the study.
When it was published, the report provided the field with critical, actionable information, attracted media attention, and established our grantee as a credible and influential player.
This grant also shifted our founders’ attitudes about our foundation’s capacity to support the development of valuable knowledge and insight, and have influence. And it showed us once again the value of listening to grantees.
Funding What Grantees Need
The Suder Foundation (TSF), a private operating foundation in Dallas, was created in 2009 to dramatically increase the graduation rates of first-generation college students. The foundation initially fulfilled its mission by developing First Scholars®, a holistic support program offered at eight four-year public universities across the country. The program yielded successful results, yet its cohort-based model left large numbers other first-gen students unserved.
Eager to expand support for this growing population of college-going students, in June 2017, TSF joined with NASPA – Student Affairs Professionals in Higher Education to co-found the Center for First-generation Student Success. The Center’s mission is to be the premier source of evidence-based practices, professional development, and knowledge creation for the higher education community to advance the success of first-generation students.
Identifying opportunities for the Center to take a leadership role and establish itself as a trusted resource became a top priority. The NASPA leadership team proposed the idea of conducting a national landscape analysis of colleges and universities to learn about current challenges and best practices that affect first-generation college student experiences and outcomes. As an early activity of the Center, our board members expressed concern that the time needed to conduct a study would impede other, more action-oriented work.
NASPA stood firm in its position that the landscape analysis was necessary, affirming that the study would:
- Fill a gap in the field by providing a comprehensive view on supports and barriers to first-generation student success across higher education
- Fulfill its strategic priority to develop and promote scholarly research and data-informed practice
- Establish the Center as the primary clearinghouse for post-secondary education to advance first-generation student persistence and completion
Despite concern about the time commitment for a small-staffed entity, the Suder Foundation approved funding for NASPA to hire a consultant, which helped with interview protocol, survey design, and data collection.
Published in October 2018, First-Generation Student Success: A Landscape Analysis of Programs and Services at Four-Year Institutions was a resounding success with over 10,000 report downloads to date. The report’s publication led to an invitation for the Center’s senior director to participate in a panel at SXSW EDU, more than a dozen other invited presentations, and media coverage by USA Today, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Hechinger Report, Politico, NPR, and others. The Center also hosted a breakfast discussion for 30 DC-based thought leaders to discuss findings.
The Center continues to leverage the landscape analysis and build its reputation. The inaugural NASPA Conferences on Student Success in Higher Education sold out with approximately 1400 attendees. Of this total, more than half selected the First-generation Student Success Conference as their focus. In June 2019, the Center launched First Forward, a national recognition program for institutions of higher education with a demonstrated commitment to advancing first-generation student outcomes. A new report focused specifically on first-generation student success programs and services at two-year institutions is underway and scheduled for publication by early 2020.
The Suder Foundation is very pleased and impressed with the credible scope and depth of the landscape analysis and the ripple effect of its authority among higher education professionals.
Diane Schorr transforms ideas into workable solutions such as The Suder Foundation’s holistic student success program, First Scholars®. Diane collaborates with, convenes, and connects grantees and partners to increase social impact in the higher education sector. Her path to philanthropy includes experiences in business, higher education, and nonprofit and government organizations.
 “First-generation college students” are generally considered those whose parents do not have a four-year degree. Varying definitions exist and a November 2017 New York Times article showcased the nuances of defining this population by citing a study by University of Georgia professor, Robert K. Toutkoushian, His study analyzed eight different versions of the term “first-generation” and revealed that, across a sample of 7300 students, the number who could be defined as first-generation ranged from 22 percent to 77 percent, depending on the definition used.
Congratulations! This is an excellent example of how foundation leaders need to listen and trust their grantees. Programs like First Scholars help undergird first generation students; however, your capacity-building efforts to help NASPA put into play a much larger dynamic still rippling throughout the field. Bravo for taking a risk and trusting their lead!