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Spotlight May 19, 2020

Strong Start to Finish

Developmental education is a critically important issue for postsecondary education and one that most states are trying to tackle. The more that states can learn from each other and move the needle on systemwide changes in developmental education, the more opportunities there are for first-year college students to succeed. Strong Start to Finish (SSTF), launched in 2017, is a revolutionary, collaborative $13 million project funded by Ascendium Education Group in partnership with The Kresge Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Strong Start to Finish connects an emerging network of committed postsecondary leaders and philanthropists working together to establish institutional developmental education practice and policy that works and can be scaled across the nation. The goal is to bring equity to education, helping more students complete gateway courses in their first year of study.  

This is the first grant Ascendium has made under a pooled funding approach. Co-funding requires the grantee to submit applications, reports and outcomes according to individual funder templates. With pooled funding, though, the funders collectively agree on the effort’s goals and desired outcomes and put aside their respective processes in favor of a single, consolidated response from the grantee. Pooling funding for SSTF was a unique opportunity for Ascendium, especially appealing for the strong signal it sends to the field that three of the nation’s largest postsecondary education funders are strategically aligned on scaling developmental education reforms. Critically, pooling funds makes more money available to go further than any one grantmaker alone could fund.

All three funding organizations already had significant investments in the developmental education field, but SSTF was the first opportunity that put all those investments into play in one grant and brought them to scale.

“One of the most interesting things about this pooled funding grant is the way the funders have put together a package for work that is based on what systems want, versus approaching the project prescriptively: ‘This is what we want to fund, this is who your partners will be, this is how long you’ll have to do the work,’” notes Amy Kerwin, Vice President-Education Philanthropy, Ascendium. “Instead, this initiative gives colleges and institutions the ability to identify what they need to do the work, the partners they want to work with and how they want to do that work around a common goal and metrics.”

The project brings together researchers, practitioners, students and faculty to understand the problem holistically, and figure out all the different factors that contribute to student success.

“The opportunity to pool funding and work collaboratively with The Kresge Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been incredibly helpful to us,” said Amy Kerwin. “Rather than read reports and try and glean strategies, we have the opportunity, multiple times a year, to talk openly, honestly, candidly: ‘here’s what we’re thinking about, here’s why we’re thinking about it, here’s a change in our strategy, here’s something we tried that didn’t work and we don’t want to do it again.”

Watch a brief video (.47) on what the collaborative, pooled funding approach used in Strong Start to Finish means to Ascendium.

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