The Role Foundations Play in Higher Education Reform Is Topic of Steinhardt Institute for Higher Education Policy Forum

The Steinhardt Institute for Higher Education Policy at New York University hosted a public forum titled, “Private Dollars for Public Purposes: Are Foundations Setting the Agenda for Higher Education Reform?” in October.  Three panelists considered whether the dominance of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation is sidelining disparate voices on important policy debates.

The speakers were Patrick M. Callan, president of the Higher Education Policy Institute; Kevin Carey, director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation; and Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, a former dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who serves as a professor at Bard College.

Many aspects of American higher education owe their origins to the influence of private philanthropists. Lagemann explained that as the distribution of wealth in the United States has become more unequal the concentration of wealth and power that these foundations represent has profound implications for democracy.

The speakers agreed that while the role of foundations is largely positive, their influence raises concerns. Currently, the Gates and Lumina Foundations are drawing attention and policy efforts to important national issues, such as American underperformance in education and the challenges associated with improving college completion rates for low income students.

Callan observed that foundation grants increasingly resemble contracts, with grantees effectively hired to carry out a foundation’s agenda, and wondered whether foundation’s grant making was “too categorical, too narrow, and too prescriptive.”

He noted that the approach risks overlooking important ideas, as large foundations seek to enforce their agenda through one-size-fits-all solutions. As the role of foundations becomes ever greater,  their influence will continue to grow and more questions will arise.

The panel was hosted by Ann Marcus, Steinhardt Dean Emerita and director of The Steinhardt Institute for Higher Education Policy.

(Photos:  Patrick Callan:  Patrick Callan and Ellen Lagemann. Credit:  Lou Rosenberg)