Kresge Foundation – Transforming Education


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The Kresge Foundation has been operating since 1924 with a mission to promote human progress. Over the past eight years, it moved from its exclusive focus on funding nonprofit capital facilities to promoting opportunity for low-income people in cities. William F. L. “Bill” Moses serves as the managing director for the Foundation’s education program and was the key architect in restructuring Kresge’s education grant priorities toward postsecondary access and success for low-income, first generation and under-represented students. We visited with Bill about challenges and opportunities instrumenting education reform and championing social justice.

An Architect for Change

Bill Moses wants to effect change—big, sustainable change—especially for low-income populations. In 2006, he and his team set out to find the place in the U.S. with the largest population of non-college attending, low-income, underserved adults. This journey led them to the center of the college completion problem.

For about 80 years, Kresge Foundation had a different approach. “We built buildings,” explained Moses. “Libraries, music halls, shelters, food banks—that’s what we did, and it was important. But the impact was for one campus, one town, one organization.” In the last decade Kresge began to re-imagine and re-engineer its philanthropic approach. “I was very lucky to have a pretty free hand in designing our current approach,” said Moses. “I saw a dearth of highly-qualified people for well paying jobs and realized succeeding in preparing them for those jobs would help us as a country be competitive in a global economy, help them from a social justice viewpoint by improving their life earnings, and help their families and future generations break the cycle of poverty. We looked at exciting work at Lumina and emerging efforts at Gates and shifted our higher education efforts to access and success. And instead of focusing on one school or one building, we shifted our focus to networks and collaborations to build pathways through college completion for underserved populations.”

Foundation Priorities

The education programs focus on two primary goals:

  • To increase postsecondary access and success for low-income, first-generation and under-represented students. The focus is on getting them to apply AND persist to transfer or completion
  • To build capacity at institutions that focus on the population Kresge serves.
Data and Demographics

In searching for the places with the potential to do the most good with limited resources, Moses and his team examined a lot of research and data. “We looked at Lumina’s research and the Educational Needs Index among others,” he said. “We clearly saw several states with high numbers and percentages of non-completers. We then factored in minority and first generation populations. From there we looked at where existing support was strong on the ground to bolster our efforts. The result: while Kresge’s Education Team will fund promising opportunities anywhere, data suggested redoubling their efforts in Southern California, Texas, Arkansas and Michigan.

The Surprise the Data Delivered

In looking at public use data and micro data, Moses discovered the place where a large low-income population was least likely to complete a college degree.

“When you think of overcoming incredible odds at college access and success, you think Appalachia, or the Mississippi Delta, or the north slope of Alaska, or struggling Native American reservations, but it wasn’t any of those. Ground Zero for the college completion agenda was South LA, a couple of subway stops from downtown Los Angeles near the University of Southern California,” he said. “So we went in and got to know the people in that community.”

Reforming Cities from Within

The exciting thing about reform is you get to meet reformers, and Moses met several visionary leaders that are now profoundly changing the educational landscape of Southern California. His enthusiasm as he sings their praises is both unbridled and inspiring. “Southern California is where the action is. You have Alison DeLucca with the Southern California College Access Network; David Rattray, the senior vice president of the L.A. Chamber; and groups including Unite LA and LA Compact. They are working within the communities and schools, as well as with Univision and other industry leaders, to effect change. The Los Angeles Community Colleges asked us to help them join Achieving the Dream, and that was a huge catalyst.” In 2009, 38% of all associate degrees in Los Angeles went to multi-racial students. In three years that percentage jumped to 49%. “The leaders in L.A. are fabulous—the ones we’re funding and others—their dedication and collaboration with each other to solve this problem is phenomenal.”

The lesson we learned is you want to work with reformers who want to collaborate. – Bill Moses

Four Key States for Outreach and Funding

California is Kresge’s biggest focus state and the Foundation often seeks to partner with local foundations that have strong local knowledge and a commitment to college attainment. In Michigan, that foundation is Kresge itself, along with a strong network of community foundations, but in Texas Kresge relies on the Greater Texas Foundation, based in Bryan.

Kresge chose to focus on Arkansas also using the formula of great need/great leaders. Arkansas has one of the nation’s lowest college completion rates, but the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation shares Kresge’s commitment to college access and success. Arkansas also has innovative institutions. “Philander Smith, a small HBCU (Historically Black College and University) in Little Rock, has recently shown a very interesting outcome,” said Moses. To try to distinguish itself from other small HBCUs, Philander adopted a social justice focus, building on its roots in the United Methodist Church and proximity to Little Rock civil rights sites.

“In the past, Philander had a 60% retention rate from first year to second year for first-time, full-time black male students, but it had fallen to 39%. After the introduction of a first-year seminar on social justice, the retention rate for second year first-time, full-time black males climbed to 90%,” said Moses. “Granted, it’s a small sample and hasn’t been replicated yet, but it shows the value of supporting programs that leverage cultural competencies to serve low-income students.

Committing to Data Analytics Critical

Another area of Kresge’s interest is data analytics to improve student success. “Most higher education institutions assert their priorities are educating students and research. But at institutions with low graduation rates, colleges need to commit to data analytics to discover what really works with their students to inform potential interventions to help their students succeed,” Moses said. “It’s exciting when you see that happening, like at the University of Maryland University College where they know with 85% certainty who is at risk of not completing the term. There’s great work going on at Arizona State. Georgia State is demonstrating amazing results for students of color by using predictive analytics to successfully remove all race-based differences in attainment and persistence. “

We really can start to change higher education. We can make students’ lives better – this is not Quixotic; it is not impossible. – Bill Moses

The Million Dollar Talent Dividend

Seeing the possible impact of citywide initiatives to improve college attainment, Kresge launched the Talent Dividend Prize—$1 million to the city that could demonstrate the largest per capita growth in locally-earned bachelor’s degrees over a three-year period. “Akron, Ohio, won the million dollars and we’re very proud of them. According to CEO for Cities, 58% of a city’s success (GDP) is derived from the percentage of residents holding a BA degree. Many of the coalitions and collaborations that formed during the contest are strong and will continue.

“When Kresge started to promote access and success, it seemed like the right thing to do, but we didn’t necessarily know if it would have the results we had hoped for,” said Moses. “Scaling is still a challenge, but the lesson we learned is you want to work with reformers who want to collaborate. Fortunately there are many of these in higher education. We’re working with folks who want to change higher education to serve both the needs of a global economy and social justice,” said Moses.

We really can start to change higher education. We can make students’ lives better – this is not Quixotic; it is not impossible.”


William F. L. Moses

William F. L. Moses serves as the managing director for The Kresge Foundation’s Education Program, which promotes access and success in higher education for low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented students. A key architect in restructuring Kresge’s education programming, Bill leads the education team’s continuum of grant activities from developing program strategy, reviewing preliminary ideas, and helping grantees develop proposals or initiatives, to awarding funding and monitoring existing grants. He presents Education Program work to Kresge’s board and represents the foundation at media and nonprofit events.

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