Sunday Reading: How Should Philanthropy Respond?

Strategic Philanthropy
Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Maybe it was because I had just had lunch with three college students who I mentor as part of the College Success Program TPI supports for a client that my Sunday evening reading seemed to have a common theme.  First, there was the National Public Radio story on “School Debt: A Long-Term Burden for Many Graduates,” which profiled young people who owe as much as $160,000 in student debt. They were the first in their family to go to college and believed that this was the route to economic success.  Instead, they recount all that they are now forced to forego as they struggle to pay back their loans. 

In fact, about a third of bachelor degree recipients this year have enough debt to have a 20-year or longer repayment plan.

Turning to the Sunday New York Times, two stories seemed to question the idea that college is the best way out of poverty. “Will Dropouts Save America?” by Michael Ellsberg begins by naming such famous college dropouts as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg.  Ellsberg goes on to argue that there are in fact two job markets in America – the formal job market where you apply for an advertised job, and the informal job market where it is all about who you know.  And, according to Ellsberg, it is the informal market that accounts for some 80 percent of all jobs.  “Yet our children grow up amid an echo chamber of voices telling them to get good grades, do well on the SATs, and spend an average of $45,000 on tuition – after accounting for scholarships – while taking on $23,000 in debt to get a private four-year college education.”

Another Times story, “The Paradox of the New Elite” by Alexander Stille, argues that, even as historically disposed groups in the United States have gained rights, we have become a more economically stratified society.  Stille points out that increasingly our elite institutions are comprised of students from upper- and upper-middle income families and he makes the case that by granting equality of opportunity we have decided that it is o.k. to ignore equality of condition.  He contrasts this with European countries, notably Germany, where children are placed on different tracks at age 10, some leading to university and others to vocational school.  This is a closing of opportunity that Americans would find intolerable, but it is uncontroversial in Germany because those attending vocational schools often earn as much as those who attend university.


The need to begin questioning the “college for everyone” mantra and instead create a system that affords equality of condition was eloquently presented in “Pathways to Prosperity,” a project at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.  That study found that while the “one size fits all” model that characterizes American education typically encourages students to earn bachelor’s degrees, only 30 percent of Americans actually earn bachelor’s degrees by age 27 and 42 percent of the nation’s 27-year-olds have no more than a high school degree.  And there is a growing mismatch between our traditional approach to post-secondary education and the economic realities.  While it is true that the number of jobs that require no post-secondary education have declined, the researchers note that only one-third of the jobs created in the coming years are expected to need a bachelor's degree or higher. Given these realities, Pathways to Prosperity argues that we need to broaden the range of high-quality pathways that we offer young adults, including putting more emphasis on career counseling and high-quality career education, as well as apprenticeship programs and community colleges as viable routes to well-paying jobs.

I recently got off the phone with another student in our College Success Program, a sophomore at Syracuse.  She was calling because she just found out that she must come up with an additional $900 in order to register for spring classes.  For this young woman, who grew up in Harlem and is the first in her family to attend college, $900 is a huge amount of money. She already has $5500 annually in loans and is, wisely, reluctant to take on additional loans.  Unfortunately, I did not have a solution to her problem.

My question is, what is the appropriate role for philanthropy in this issue?  Can funders provide leadership in ensuring that the data on student debt, educational outcomes, and policy options is widely available and accessible?  This might include a range of strategies, from local and national public education campaigns to enhanced efforts to ensure that young people have adequate access to financial aid advising.  Should funders support pilots for the new kinds of approaches called for by Pathways to Prosperity, perhaps working collaboratively with local educational systems and employers to create new pathways to careers such as apprenticeship programs?

And of course there is the personal approach – helping young people who do not have the kinds of connections and networks that help 80 percent of us find our jobs.  This past summer, as part of the College Success Program, we helped our students secure summer internships.  We essentially used our connections – based on grants we’re involved in – to give students the opportunity to work in professional jobs for the summer.  The donor provided grants to non-profits that they, in turn, used to pay the students.  The results were literally life changing – these young people got exposed to professionals and careers that they did not know existed.  They had the opportunity to make connections and, in fact, one of our first College Success graduates is now working full time at the organization where she interned the previous summer – just the kind of route that is traditionally reserved for those who rely on their family and friends to enter the job market.