Universities have long depended on grants from foundations to provide them with operating capital and pay for new projects. But foundations themselves have goals and interest and they have an important role in the way universities operate, and think. It looks like foundations are increasingly playing a role of advocacy, which dramatically changes how colleges behave.

How have grant making policies impacted the way American colleges and universities operate? Cassie Hall and Scott Thomas of Claremont Graduate University attempt to answer that question in a paper they recently published for the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association.

Hall and Thomas argue, first of all, that the players are different. In the early 2000s the major education funders were Pew Charitable Trusts and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Today the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation (which, full disclosure, also helps fund the Washington Monthly) are the largest and most influential education funders.

How does this change things? Well, according to an article by Doug Lederman at Inside Higher Ed:

The scholars’ analysis of Gates’s and Lumina’s grant-making suggests a shift toward and away from certain topics — “toward issues of completion, productivity, metrics and efficiency,” though foundation officials challenge the paper’s assertion that they have moved away from the issues of access and community colleges that dominated their early grant making.

But the unmistakable shift that the two foundations have led in higher education grant-making, Hall and Thomas argue, has been away from giving to institutions and toward closely collaborating with state and federal policy makers and a series of “intermediaries” (nonprofit groups created with the foundations’ funds, think tanks, consultants, etc.) who are interested in carrying out the philanthropies’ agenda.

This shift, Hall and Thomas, represents a new foundation focus on advocacy, using foundations to enact policy changes.

Earlier foundations simply gave universities money and let them figure out what ideas worked best and how to pursue them. Today the foundations help lead the efforts by identifying research areas and bringing people together to discuss the ideas they find most promising.

In many ways, the authors argue, this is a very good thing. The consensus of the grant makers form the closest thing this country really has to a national education policy.

It’s also potentially limiting, however. If the institution that gives a university money also determines what issues to pursue and how to go about pursuing them, those quickly become the only things people care about. Furthermore, the authors ask, shouldn’t other entities bear responsibility for fixing policy problems?

By inserting themselves into higher education policy and advocacy conversations, is it also possible that foundations are giving states an excuse to “slack off” in their role as primary providers of higher education? Might states see these developments as an opportunity to give up some of their responsibility for higher education to private entities like philanthropies, or perhaps to the federal government, whose stance is aligned with the foundations? If so, what will happen when foundations get tired of these issues (as has happened historically) or when their money runs out?

Grant makers have always done something like this. Controlling money is a way of controlling action. That’s fine. But, as the authors point out, the money won’t always be there. If foundations determine policy directions, who determines policy once they’re gone?

Read the paper here?

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer