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To many of the policy experts and researchers who work with them, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation have driven more significant (and beneficial) change in five years than American higher education has seen in decades.

To their critics, the two behemoths and a band of collaborating groups and think tanks (call them the "completion mafia") have hijacked the national agenda for higher education and drowned out alternative perspectives.

One doesn't have to fall squarely into one of those camps to acknowledge the extent to which the two foundations have remade the philanthropic landscape in higher education. A paper to be presented Monday at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association aims to document -- through an admittedly impressionistic mix of data, interviews and other means -- just how thoroughly the two philanthropic giants (and others) have altered both the traditional foundation role in academe and (by extension) the public policy discussion about higher education.

While the generally evenhanded paper acknowledges that the foundations' approach has accomplished a great deal, it cites significant concerns about what may be lost in the process.

At its core, argue the authors Cassie Hall and Scott L. Thomas, Gates and Lumina "have taken up a set of methods -- strategic grant-making, public policy advocacy, the funding of intermediaries, and collaboration with government -- that illustrate their direct and unapologetic desire to influence policy and practice in numerous higher education arenas."

Imprint on Education

The dramatic shift in how major foundations work in education has been much noted at the K-12 level, but it is relatively little discussed in higher education -- arguably because so many of the analysts, scholars and campus officials who might typically weigh in on the subject benefit from the two foundations' largesse in one way or another and may be reluctant to bite the hand that feeds them.

But as Hall pursued her graduate work in higher education at Claremont Graduate University (where she worked with Thomas, a professor and associate dean there), she was struck by how many of the news articles she read about state and federal policy in higher education mentioned the role of foundations -- and how few of the textbooks and journal articles she read did so. "It seemed like there was some kind of shift going on, and that the scholarly study hadn't caught up to it yet," she said in an interview.

So with Thomas's help, she focused her master's thesis on documenting whether the role of foundations was changing toward an "advocacy" model, as the rhetoric (of fans and critics alike) suggested. Hall began with the hopes of undertaking a fully empirical study, exploring trends in grant-making and other data, but soon concluded that numbers weren't going to tell the story. "So much of what felt different about it was not just how much [the foundations] were spending and on what, but on how it was being done," she said.

The study includes instructive data on the foundations' spending patterns over time, which show shifts toward student success and productivity (in Lumina's case) and public policy advocacy and postsecondary education (for Gates). But the strongest evidence of a new approach to higher ed philanthropy comes in the lists of think tanks and other "intermediaries" the funds support, interviews with higher education policy makers -- and the words of the foundation officials themselves.

Hall, now an assistant director of admissions at Scripps College, and Thomas trace what they describe as essentially a consolidation of the center of gravity within higher education philanthropy through the decade of the 2000s, with the disappearance or receding in the field of several longtime players (such as the Pew Charitable Trusts and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation) and the emergence as “megafoundations” of Gates (formed with money from the Microsoft founder, reinforced with a major infusion by Warren Buffett) and Lumina (formed in 2000 with the proceeds from a major student loan guarantor).

The scholars’ analysis of Gates’s and Lumina’s grant-making suggests a shift toward and away from certain topics -- “toward issues of completion, productivity, metrics and efficiency,” though foundation officials challenge the paper’s assertion that they have moved away from the issues of access and community colleges that dominated their early grant making.

Gates' and Lumina's behavior "reflects a deviation from the established norms in higher education philanthropy, norms that generally created a distance between foundation activity and politics.”
--Cassie Hall and Scott L. Thomas

But the unmistakable shift that the two foundations have led in higher education grant-making, Hall and Thomas argue, has been away from giving to institutions and toward closely collaborating with state and federal policy makers and a series of “intermediaries” (nonprofit groups created with the foundations’ funds, think tanks, consultants, etc.) who are interested in carrying out the philanthropies’ agenda.

The foundations back consultants who work to enact new state policies on such things as performance-based funding, and there has been significant crossover of Gates officials, particularly, into the Obama administration. They have also provided significant financial support to K-12 and higher education media organizations (individual publications and groups) aimed at encouraging reporting on the issues they care about. (Inside Higher Ed has not engaged in any such partnerships.)

The change has been driven, the paper says, by “an increasing level of distrust that higher education institutions can successfully enact reforms that will result in meaningful changes to our postsecondary system.”

Hoping to drive broader-scale changes than can be accomplished by seeding many ideas at individual institutions, the foundations have turned instead to the “unabashed use of … strategies to influence government action, policy, and legislation -- in their own words, foundations are taking on a leadership role, acting as a catalyst for change, identifying research areas, supporting best practices, engaging in public policy advocacy, enhancing communications power, using convening power, fostering partnerships, building public will, and employing the bully pulpit.”

They add: “This behavior reflects a deviation from the established norms in higher education philanthropy, norms that generally created a distance between foundation activity and politics.”

The scholars need not engage in tea-leaf reading to discern this shift; the leaders of the foundation have been transparent about their goals to engage in what the authors call “advocacy philanthropy.”

“Clearly, interacting with policy makers at both the state and federal level is a key element of this grant-making strategy. I think what we came to realize fairly quickly was that the Lumina Foundation had an opportunity to be a catalyst -- to be a leadership organization that could provide national leadership on these issues of access and success in higher education,” Jamie Merisotis, Lumina’s president since 2006, said in 2010. “So as a foundation, we not only make grants to support programs that will improve success in colleges and universities, but we’re also participating actively in advancing public policy that will lead to our goals and we are committed to contributing to the public will…. So I think it’s very important to recognize that Lumina sees that unique capacity that it has as having dimensions that take us well beyond the traditional grant-making role.”

"We will use our voice -- and encourage others to do the same -- to raise awareness about the urgency of our goal and building support for the policy and financial commitments needed to achieve it," Hilary Pennington, who led the Gates education arm from 2007 until last month, said in a November 2008 speech cited by the authors. "We will support research to identify the best policy approaches and the best institutional practices to accelerate completion, and we will leverage that information, sharing what we learn with key decision makers throughout the nation. Our foundation has a strong and persuasive voice, and we will join you in advocating for policy changes and investments proven to get results.”

The Pros and Cons

The foundations’ “advocacy” approach has produced several major benefits, the paper’s authors aver. Its work has drawn the attention of a disparate group of actors and focused them in collaborative work toward some important goals; their overarching objective of increasing postsecondary attainment (especially for low-income Americans) is arguably the closest thing to a national higher education strategy the country has had since the G.I. Bill and the post-Sputnik era.

And by working at the state and federal policy level, instead of at the institutional level as previous generations of higher education philanthropies typically did, Gates and Lumina have been able to attack problems at a scale not otherwise possible.

As one of the authors’ anonymous interviewees (a higher education policy expert) put it, “[T]hese things are indeed the way you have to go if you want to get the objective of more students through college — you have to change practice and policy and you have to change it all at the same time in a messy, directed way, and you have to be very intentional about it. And I think anybody objectively looking at the data would come to that conclusion.”

The approach raises concerns, too, though, Hall and Thomas assert. Some of them are particularly of note to higher ed researchers like the authors, such as that the relatively narrow focus of Gates and Lumina (which other foundations have embraced to some degree) have redirected money from other kinds of postsecondary research (and on other topics) that individual scholars might have sought funds for in the past.

More broadly, Hall and Thomas channel fears that the consensus that Gates and Lumina have built through their common agenda-setting (in league with federal and state officials) and their comparatively massive, widely distributed dollars (to a cottage industry of “intermediaries”) has given them “outsized influence” and squelched alternative points of view.

“When you think you have all the answers, you exclude so many great ideas out there,” the authors quote one higher education policy expert as saying. “The standardization and narrowness of their agenda means that ideas have to fit into narrow boxes, at the expense of some other really great ideas.” Another added: “There are an awful lot of ideas that could be out there that never see the light of day now because the competitions of ‘tell us how you would tackle this problem’ and those sort of wide-open invitations to send in proposals just are not there. There may be some really good ideas that do not see the light of day anymore, because the ideas in many ways are becoming the purview of the foundation staffs and whoever they bring in or not. So it is being controlled by groupthink more than it used to be.”

This differs from how most higher ed-focused philanthropies operated in the past. “This person claimed that in the past foundations might have desired the same level of reform, but they approached their grant-making very differently -- ‘they announced their interests and then opened the doors for institutions and organizations to propose activities consistent with that agenda…. Now they have an agenda but they also have strategies that they are interested in playing out to pursue that agenda. They are identifying organizations to conduct them, in a different process than has historically happened.’ "

The authors also cite the discomfort that some people in higher education feel about the foundations wielding such power in influencing public policy with comparatively little oversight and external accountability.

"I think it’s very important to recognize that Lumina sees that unique capacity that it has as having dimensions that take us well beyond the traditional grant-making role.”
--Jamie Merisotis, Lumina's president

“The [foundations’] explicit step into the policy agenda, through the wielding of consequential amounts of money, seems somewhat undemocratic to me,” Thomas said in an interview. “They have come together to force a point of view in a way that involves federal and state policy domains, and that’s very uncomfortable for me. I can’t argue with their agenda too much – I’ve been working on many of these same issues my whole career – but how they’re doing it concerns me.”

Thomas speculated that the foundations may be getting a pass from would-be critics in part because their agenda of college access and success is one that many academics support. “There’s an element of, ‘the dictatorship is wonderful as long as I'm in favor of the dictator,” he said. “If it were a cause I disagreed with, it would probably trouble a lot of us more.”

One doesn’t have to look far for an example in higher education right now, given the uproar over the influence of the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation and other right-leaning groups and philanthropies.

The Foundations Respond

Given how the study is filled with quotations from leaders of Gates and Lumina that largely reinforce the authors’ assertions about the foundations’ strategies, it would be hard for them to take significant issue with the paper. And indeed, Merisotis of Lumina, in an interview, described it as a “thoughtful treatment” of the sort that the foundation welcomes, since we “acknowledge that we’re learning as we go, so this kind of analysis helps.” (Gates declined to comment.)

Merisotis did quibble with some of the authors’ points. While conceding that Lumina’s “advocacy” approach may differ from how other higher education foundations have behaved in the past, he compared its work to the Ford Foundation’s advocacy for civil rights in the 1960s, when it “tried to build public will, inform and influence public policy, and worked with a diverse set of actors in the field,” he said. Lumina has also used as a more current model the work of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which has injected itself deeply into efforts to pass anti-smoking laws and  tobacco taxes, among other policy efforts.

Merisotis also challenged the notion that Lumina has largely abandoned its efforts to expand access to higher education for low-income and other underrepresented students in favor of a focus on having students complete college.

Yes, the foundation cares about completion, but its emphasis is on increasing college attainment, which means both expanding the number of people getting access to college and enhancing their chances of success once there. “Attainment is participation times completion, and the idea that we’ve let up on the accelerator on access is not accurate,” he said.

At the core, though, Merisotis does not dispute the scholars’ view that his (and perhaps other) foundations are approaching philanthropy differently and in a way that may make some in academe uncomfortable.

“We’ve shifted from being a very good grant-making organization to a leadership organization,” he said, “and all we can do is be transparent about what we’re trying to achieve and let people decide how we’ve done.”

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