Expanding opportunities for low-income learners

A new grant-making focus from Madison-based Ascendium updates the student loan guarantor’s giving program and takes it nationwide.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Madison-based Ascendium, in the battle to expand the opportunities available to students from low-income backgrounds, unveiled a new philanthropic initiative in May that aims to build on the organization’s existing grant-making approach and expand its focus to new areas.

Ascendium (formerly Great Lakes Higher Education Corp. and Affiliates) makes grants to researchers, educational institutions, workforce training providers, and other nonprofit organizations for initiatives aimed at expanding opportunity for learners from low-income backgrounds so they can better achieve postsecondary educational and career success. The organization’s grant-making typically focuses on increasing equity for low-income populations, especially those in historically underrepresented groups: first-generation students, incarcerated adults, rural community members, students of color, and veterans.

The new strategy will guide Ascendium’s philanthropy for the next three to five years, as the federal student loan guarantor also expands the geographic scope of its philanthropy from seven legacy focus states to a nationwide orientation.

“We’re excited to enter this new phase in our history as a funder,” says Amy Kerwin, vice president of education philanthropy. “We were served well in the past by a flexible approach that allowed us to pivot quickly as we forged relationships in the field. Now we’re ready to intensify our efforts on the most pressing issues where we believe we can have the greatest impact.”

Ascendium’s new grant-making framework calls for Ascendium to award grants in four areas:

  • Removing barriers to student success at the institution and system levels;
  • Streamlining key learner transitions, such as matriculation, transfer, and workforce entry;
  • Expanding high-quality higher education in prison programs; and
  • Developing rural education and workforce training programs.

“We recognize that in order to elevate opportunity for those from low-income households, we need to focus on postsecondary education and workforce training,” notes Rebecca Villarreal, director of education grantmaking. “Two of the strategies — removing barriers to student success at the system and institutional level, and streamlining key learner transitions — build from our eight years or so working with grant partners. While the field has seen progress, there are still far too many individuals struggling to navigate complex postsecondary education and workforce training systems.”

In particular, Ascendium has been funding several exploratory projects in the higher education prison space for the last year or two, says Villarreal. Given what the organization has learned and the opportunity to expand quality programs for those incarcerated, Ascendium’s leaders decided to double down and make this an explicit focus. “Our desire to work in rural communities is fueled by the understanding that there are disparities between rural educational attainment and communities located in urban and suburban environments,” explains Villarreal. “We also recognize that given many national philanthropic organizations’ desires to achieve scale in terms of number of individuals served and impacted, rural education institutions are not always benefiting from the transformational efforts underway. This is a new space for us and we look forward to learning more.”

Ascendium’s grant-making budget has grown in recent years. In 2018, the organization awarded $107 million, and Ascendium is on track to match or exceed that amount in 2019, though Villarreal acknowledges a target grant amount has not been set for this year. “Much of our grant-making is in service of change at the institution and system levels, so it’s difficult to gauge how many learners will benefit,” notes Villarreal. “We hope the effective policies and practices we help identify and promote will be adopted very widely, and as a result benefit not just those enrolled in postsecondary and workforce training programs right now, but future generations of learners, as well.”

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