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Remove Structural Barriers to Success

Our philanthropy focuses on reducing or eliminating institutional and systemic barriers for underrepresented postsecondary education learners so they can achieve their academic and career goals.

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How We See the Problem

Today’s learners often aren’t well served by the educational systems that were built years ago for more traditional students. Now students are often older, more diverse, working one or more jobs, raising families, and struggling to make ends meet.

Colleges and universities are complex, and often don’t have a student-centric approach to course offerings or availability, advising and other institutional policies. The problem shows in the equity gaps in completion rates: just 11% of low-income students graduate with a bachelor’s degree. Almost 6 times as many students—58% overall—from higher-income households graduate.

Ascendium’s Approach

We support efforts identifying replicable changes to policies and practices that can dismantle unnecessary obstacles at the system and institutional levels.  We support efforts to engage diverse change agents in institutional transformation. We also support the adoption of institutional, systemwide, policies that set up learners for success.

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Outcomes We Seek

Our system-level funding fuels system-level outcomes we hope to achieve. By fostering leadership development across a spectrum of roles, we seek to prioritize student success and institutional change. We hope to help institutions and systems understand the financial impact of student success reforms, including adopting developmental education reform at scale to ensure learners are taking credit-bearing courses in their first year; ensuring more students enroll and complete gateway courses in their first year; prioritizing course availability so learners can enroll in courses they need when they need them; supporting entering learners’ end goals by helping them choose and enter a pathway; and helping institutions support learners through a strong advising process.

How we work

We fund initiatives that help remove barriers to student success. This means professional development for student-centered, postsecondary leaders in various roles, from front-line staff to institutional researchers to senior leadership and boards. It means the refinement of institutional policies and practices to better set learners up for success and funding of efforts to support a timely progression to a degree or credential. It also means expanding data infrastructure and information sharing between institutions and systems.

Grants to Remove Structural Barriers to Success

Math Initiative

University of Wisconsin System|$2,300,000|1/2018 - 12/2020
This grant supports the University of Wisconsin System in helping its colleges increase completion of math gateway courses. The colleges will collaborate on improving developmental math offerings and establish new pathways that are aligned and developed concurrently with meta-majors.

Opportunities in Building and Applying Evidence for Student Success

University of Notre Dame|$98,396|12/2019 - 12/2020
This grant supports the Lab for Economic Opportunities at the University of Notre Dame in convening practitioners, researchers and policymakers to develop a shared understanding of the research on student advising and counseling. Six rigorously evaluated programs, including Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, will be examined to develop policy recommendations on how to build and apply this evidence base to improve student outcomes more widely.

Encouraging Additional Summer Enrollment

MDRC|$3,295,000|7/2016 - 12/2020
This grant supports MDRC in evaluating the impact of the Encouraging Additional Summer Enrollment (EASE) project at four two-year colleges in Ohio. EASE is an effort to improve community college persistence and completion by increasing the number of students who enroll in summer term through two types of intervention: targeted messaging and financial incentives.

WTCS Student Success Center

Jobs for the Future Inc|$1,350,000|3/2017 - 9/2020
This grant supports Jobs for the Future in creating a Wisconsin Student Success Center to bolster the Wisconsin Technical College System's scaling of student success initiatives across its campuses.

Piloting an Income Share Agreement that Serves Low-Income Students

MDRC|$500,000|9/2019 - 9/2020
This grant supports MDRC in assessing the operational feasibility of an Income Share Agreement (ISA) structured to lead to stronger outcomes for students from low-income backgrounds. Education Finance Institute will raise private capital to fund ISAs for up to 200 students attending five to seven pilot colleges.

Early Leading Indicators of Student Success

Research Foundation of the City University of New York|$477,584|4/2017 - 8/2020
This grant supports the Research Foundation of the City University of New York Graduate Center in developing a set of standardized early leading indicators that predict long-term student and labor market outcomes.

Arizona State University Local: California

AZ Board of Regents on behalf of Arizona State University|$1,500,000|5/2019 - 7/2020
This grant supports Arizona State University in testing the feasibility of a model to provide underserved 18-24 year-old Californians with a clear and affordable path to a bachelor’s degree by combining the scalability of an online learning environment with local supports.

Development and Validation of a Compelling Income Share Agreement Program

Education Finance Institute|$50,000|1/2019 - 6/2020
This grant supports Education Finance Institute in designing and developing an income share agreement program that can best serve the broad needs of postsecondary students, including those attending four year institutions that focus on low income, first generation and disadvantaged populations and inter-generational mobility.

Informing Wisconsin Grant Policy

RAND Corporation|$149,780|5/2018 - 3/2020
This grant supports RAND Corporation in conducting a study to estimate the effects of financial aid on various student subgroups in Wisconsin. The study will produce evidence on outcomes, overall effectiveness and allocative efficiency, with a focus on allocation of funds.

UIA Fellows 2.0

University Innovation Alliance|$1,021,250|2/2018 - 1/2020
This grant supports the University Innovation Alliance (UIA) in funding a fellowship at each of the 11 UIA member campuses for 2018 (with matching funding from the campuses for 2019) and a newly created program director position for both years. The UIA Fellowship Program is designed to accelerate scaling of UIA initiatives and provide sustained capacity and project management support.
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