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What would your institution do for $50,000?

For grant recipients of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation meeting in Washington, D.C., this week, $50,000 is worth a multiyear commitment that includes mandatory attendance at cohort meetings and conferences, participation in research projects, and a fair share of homework.

The Next Generation Learning Challenges program, funded by the Gates Foundation, is bringing together its second cohort of teams participating in the Breakthrough Models Incubator, which aims to accelerate new models of low-cost, high-quality education. The incubator is this year focused on competency-based education, and grant recipients have committed to finalizing plans for such degrees by January 2015.

Before they met on Tuesday, the teams got another incentive to finish their work on time. The U.S. Department of Education gave a vote of confidence to institutions experimenting with competency-based education, which could make it easier for institutions to offer such degrees -- and secure financial aid eligibility -- in the future.

Between federal and local politicians, regional accreditors, students, and parents, colleges and universities have no shortage of stakeholders to answer to. But in their efforts to improve college completion rates, institutions have also invited private foundations to hold them accountable. While kick-off events are common among foundations and their grantees, some participants said the one hosted in Washington was more demanding than others.

"It’s not just the government anymore,” said John Ebersole, president of Excelsior College. “We’ve got the foundations playing a very different role than they have traditionally. They’re telling us how they want to see their money used.”

The incubator event is no mere schmoozefest. After a reception Tuesday night, teams reported back to the Fairmont Hotel in Washington’s West End neighborhood for breakfast at 7:15 a.m. Wednesday. The agenda then called for them to power through a day of Q&A and information sessions that kept them busy through a 6 p.m. working dinner.

The gathering continues through Thursday and into Friday afternoon, totaling almost three days of what Educause, the information technology organization that manages the project, calls “uninterrupted quality time to think, design and plan.”

Neither is the event an intimate meeting of college presidents. The nine grant recipients -- Antioch University, Austin Community College, Central Wyoming College, Empire State College of the State University of New York, Excelsior College, the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, Paul Smith’s College, the University of Maryland University College and the University of New England -- were all required bring teams of seven, including their president, provost, chief financial and information officers, registrar or financial aid director and at least one faculty representative.

To be eligible for the grant, applicants also had to certify that they were “available and willing to fully participate in all Incubator activities,” which includes an appearance at Educause's annual conference this fall, according to the eligibility requirements.

And before showing up, teams needed to have finished their homework. Ebersole said his take-home assignments included a reading list and an interview with a business about its workforce development needs.

“I mean, this is back-to-school time,” Ebersole said. “This is boot camp.”

While in Washington, the teams will focus on the “three Cs” of the program: content, community and coaching, according to documents sent to participants. That includes discussing what academic and businesses models are needed to support competency-based education, forming connections with fellow grant recipients and engaging with a “seasoned professional” who will serve as a mentor for the institutions going forward.

The institutions will also learn how to communicate their experiments with their accreditors. The program highlights “a constructive, informed dialogue with accreditors and other agencies resulting in clarity for regulators and flexibility for innovators” as one of its desired outcomes, and teams will hear from speakers such as Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

This synergy between accreditors, foundations and institutions suggests that the role of outside groups in influencing policy decisions has changed, said Steven Crow, former executive director of the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. Historically, Crow said in an interview, foundations would issue grants to individual institutions working on specific projects, but more recently, the grants have encouraged multiple colleges and universities to tackle a specific topic and share their findings.

“As Gates emphasizes other desired reforms in higher education ..., the foundation's investments will have an impact on what is considered important,” Crow wrote in an email. “Institutions will buy into these programs, not simply for the money, but because they do further some institutional goals. When accrediting agencies put their arms around those goals, then the foundation-funded programs become even more important and more influential. Or so I think.”

The foundations have also attracted scrutiny for their involvement in shaping higher education policy, particularly in response to their sometimes less-than-transparent procedures. The incubator teams, for example, are meeting behind closed doors. A spokeswoman for the foundation said a meeting this fall will be open to the press.

In a report presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in 2012, researchers at Claremont Graduate University argued foundations such as Gates “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.”

Crow, however, said he believed the foundations “really mean to make a difference.”

“Sometimes their solutions are right on and necessary, and we’ve needed that kind of extra money to make them work,” Crow said. “Sometimes it’s money in search of a problem, and we end up with investments that prove to be short-range and a flash in the pan. But I do think that it’s been a while since we’ve had some really rich foundations who are committing a lot of money to higher ed.”

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