INDIANAPOLIS -- The last two years have seen the emergence of the closest thing in arguably 50 years to a national higher education agenda in the United States.
The convergence around the "college completion agenda" -- put simply, the now widely held view that the country must in the next 10-15 years significantly increase the number of Americans with a quality postsecondary credential -- has been driven by many factors, most notably the imprimatur of President Obama within the first weeks of his term. But arguably even more important has been the fact that the country's highest-profile foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the most visible foundation focused primarily on higher education, the Lumina Foundation for Education, have both thrust college completion to the top of their agendas.
Potent as that convergence has been in driving both attention and significant money to the cause, it has not been without its critics. The concerns have less to do with the agenda itself -- few strongly dispute the basic premise that more higher education for more people will be good for the country, its economy and its citizens -- than with the groups' uncomfortably close alignment with the Obama administration and their purposeful and forceful intervention into public policy deliberations, which foundations have generally sought to avoid.
The issues have been raised now and then in connection to K-12 education  -- amid concerns that the Gates Foundation has excessively influenced Education Secretary Arne Duncan's Race to the Top program -- but when discussed at all in postsecondary education, they are raised quietly, since rare is the higher education association or think tank or researcher that is not receiving checks from Gates, Lumina or both.
Which made it noteworthy that one of the handful of "presidential sessions"  at last week's annual meeting here of the Association for the Study of Higher Education -- chosen by the group's elected president, William Zumeta of the University of Washington -- was a discussion of the role of foundations in higher education research and policy.
Jorge Balán, a longtime program officer at the one-time behemoth in higher education philanthropy, Ford Foundation, and now a researcher and scholar at the Universities of Buenos Aires and Toronto, began the session by laying out the history of the interaction between philanthropy and higher education policy. Balán described a world in which foundations typically worked in their own individual areas of interest, often realms that had been neglected by or were not the province of government, seeking to use the work of researchers to point the way to solutions or at least progress. A more typical foundation influence in the past was to support an area not attracting considerable government support -- for instance, the way the Ford Foundation was a strong, early supporter of women's studies.
The next speaker, Sheri Ranis, described Ford and the other major foundations that had long worked in higher education as "mission-driven" philanthropies, differentiating them from the current behemoths in education philanthropy, Lumina and Gates (her former employer), which she characterized as "outcomes oriented." These foundations, said Ranis, now a senior fellow at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, "want a seat at the table" as policy discussions unfold at the national/federal level, and put at the center of their work "BHAGs" -- "big hairy audacious goals" -- at which they take serious aim.
It's understandable that some critics would see the fact that both Gates and Lumina have embraced the same such audacious goal -- college completion -- as "an example of groupthink, or conspiracy," Ranis said, especially given what she acknowledged to be the "interlocking directorates in exchanges of personnel between the foundations and federal agencies." (Several officials with ties to Gates are in the upper reaches of Education Secretary Arne Duncan's administration.)
But "it is not so -- it is simply not so" that the consensus suggests "collusion or conspiracy," Ranis said. "The foundations share an approach to the analytic process and have come to the same conclusions from the process [about what needs to be done], and are equally impatient about getting there." Because foundations are encouraged to be "simple and clear about what we want to do," she said, their messages often get "dumb[ed] down" to the point that they sound identical -- but "behind that is much more complication and consideration."
Dewayne Matthews, a vice president at Lumina, offered some insights into the hyperfocus that took place at that giant institution when Jamie P. Merisotis became its president in 2008. The foundation had always seen its mission as ensuring "access and success beyond high school," Matthews said, but the "alignment" of that work behind college completion as the "operational definition of success" meant that "all the work we were doing was seen through that lens."
In addition to a much greater focus on influencing public policy, Matthews said, the elevation of this goal pushed Lumina to zero in on "the entire issue of scale." As a result, he said, programs that the foundation had supported for 15 students -- programs "that brought tears to your eyes" because of their impact on those few young people -- fell by the wayside. "We made decisions that we could not do that kind of work anymore," Matthews said, a bit wistfully. "For us, it's about collaboration and scale."
Michael S. McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation, approached the same set of developments, but from the perspective of what he called a "professional skeptic," the natural outgrowth of an organization that takes as its mission  the fostering of research about what works, and what doesn't, in education.
In a commentary that was polite yet pointed, McPherson expressed reservations about the change in philanthropic approach that Gates and Lumina have so eagerly embraced. "When we look at this movement" that the "outcomes-based" foundations have joined, "it's not just any old outcome -- it involves changes at the national level in ... government institutions' behavior," he said, referring to public schools and state-supported colleges.
Foundations are "not supposed to be involved in politics," McPherson said, and while he said specifically that he did not think that the charities' advocacy and efforts to "change federal policy" break the law, "it is in tension with the original spirit of what foundations are designed to do: go off and do their own thing," he said.
"This represents a shift from working at the edges to a concerted effort to change the core, working through political avenues," McPherson said. "These are people nobody has voted for.... They hold everybody else accountable but haven't been elected themselves."
Typical of the measured and reasoned analysis for which he is known, McPherson stopped well short of an indictment of the Gates/Lumina agenda, noting that the groups were much more inclined to pay attention to "disadvantaged groups of students" than were the "mission-driven" foundations they've supplanted, which tended to focus their attention and resources on "elite parts of higher education" that didn't necessarily need the help.
"If I made a list of all the ways private money inappropriately influences the political process, these folks would be way down the list," he said to chuckles from the audience. So "I'm not heading for the ramparts on this issue."
But the "impatience" and "urgency" (words that Ranis and Matthews used frequently) that drive the work of Gates and Lumina don't necessarily result in the most thoughtful or strategic decision-making, McPherson said, echoing suggestions in some quarters that Gates, especially, has a tendency to flit about from one topic and issue to another, without staying power.
"It can lead to a 'ready, fire, aim' strategy," he said. "We have certainly seen that sometimes they act as if it is 'too urgent for us to stop and think about.' "
McPherson made clear that he was not casting his lot instead with what is often the preferred approach of higher education leaders and researchers (including "ours at Spencer"), when left to their own devices: "The 'ready, aim, aim, aim a little more, recheck your aim, fire' strategy."
But in a higher education research and policy ecosystem where the sheer size of the new philanthropic giants and their tight alignment with the political powers-that-be threaten to crowd out all other approaches, McPherson said, perhaps wishfully, "there is room for both true believers and constructive skeptics."