College Affordability: How Can Philanthropy Help?

College Affordability: How Can Philanthropy Help?


Kristen Holway and Nicole Neroulias Gupte

College applications have skyrocketed in the past decade — and along with them, tuition and student debt. As high school seniors and undergraduates weigh their options for Fall 2015, Philanthropy Northwest, Washington Women in Need and College Spark Washington convened a group of funders and state organizations to share efforts to address this mounting crisis, ranging from local scholarships to state and national lobbying efforts.

The April 7 discussion, the launch of our First Tuesday series, also included Philanthropy Northwest members Pride Foundation, Northwest Credit Union Foundation, The Russell Family Foundation and other foundations in our six-state region interested in strategically filling gaps in college access and affordability for both traditional and non-traditional students.

The Great Recession was a “perfect storm” for college affordability, they agreed: states, students and families struggled financially, yet tuition continued to rise. Washington’s in-state undergraduate tuition rates nearly doubled from 2007 to 2014 – the second fastest spike in the country, according to keynote speaker Rachelle Sharpe, of the Washington Student Achievement Council.

Financial Aid Demand Outstrips Supply

Consequently, financial aid applications also jumped in Washington, from 322,473 applications in 2007-08 to almost 523,000 in 2013-14 — a 62% increase in six years.

Washington actually leads the nation in state aid to undergraduates, Sharpe said, but as the number of aid-eligible students has grown, more are being left behind. In 2014, nearly 34,000 eligible students did not receive tuition assistance from the state.

“There’s just not enough institutional aid,” she explained, noting that even students from higher-income families are now taking out significant loans. “Students are borrowing all along the income spectrum.”

The State Need Grant is currently funded to serve about 70% of eligible students. Even with the Federal Pell Grant and institutional aid included, “there are still financing gaps for the lowest-income students that must be met through student work, student loans, or other means,” she said, adding that the gap is especially pronounced for students who are not eligible for these grants.

The Washington State Legislature aims to address affordability through its tuition policy, student financial aid and appropriations to public institutions, by using the Affordability Interactive Model developed by Jim Fridley of the University of Washington. There are ongoing political differences in the approaches to tuition freezes and other measures at the 2-year and 4-year colleges, however.

Five Myths in Scholarship Funding

While philanthropy has played a crucial role in bridging this gap by providing scholarships and grants to students based on affinity and other factors related to each funder’s mission, there are five common missteps taking place, according to Christine McCabe, executive director at College Spark Washington:

1. Focusing exclusively on high school seniors: Most students have already left high school when looking for financial aid. In fact, Washington is ranked 47th in the country when it comes to “chance for college by age 19.” Idaho, Oregon and Alaska rank 45th, 46th and 48th, respectively. (Wyoming and Montana do much better, ranking 17th and 20th, respectively.)

2. Focusing on four-year colleges: Most Washington students attend community colleges (60%). Some of the challenges are geographic, as well as academic and financial. For example, many Pacific Northwest students live more than an hour’s drive from the nearest 4-year college.

3. Ignoring financial need: Need-based aid is not meeting demand. This includes the “Death Valley” — students from middle-income families, who do not qualify for grants but can’t afford tuition without taking out steep loans.

4. Funding tuition only: Full-time dependent students with parental support are no longer the norm. Room and board, transportation, books and other costs can add thousands of dollars to a student’s college expenses every year.

5. Ignoring support services: Persistence and completion requires more than scholarship funds. After securing financial aid and academic requirements, some students will need ongoing support, including access to mentors and peer counselors, to succeed. “Don’t leave out the real cost of life,” said McCabe. Innovative strategies — such as setting up flexible, emergency funds for childcare, transit or unanticipated expenses — can improve the likelihood of successful completion.

Participants offered two additional missteps:

6. Aligning scholarship-funding deadlines with financial aid deadlines: Financial aid deadlines may seem predictable but many students do not apply to school or for funding in the typical financial aid season. For example, Pride Foundation receives scholarship applications all year long, including students cut off by their parents when their sexual orientations are revealed. The Foundation, which serves five Pacific Northwest states, received more than 750 scholarship applications this past year, and expects the number to continue to climb.

7. Providing first-year scholarships only: Vickie Rekow, College Success Foundation’s director of scholarship services, pointed out that it’s one thing to get a student in the door of a college, but by not providing renewable funding, the student may struggle to remain in school.

Improving access to financial aid information and support services is crucial, they added.

“While we do a great deal very well in our state, gaps still exist,” said Erika Orsulak, WWIN program director, “but those are simply opportunities to step up, be as responsive as possible, and do our part towards ensuring that every Washingtonian with the dream of a college degree can make that dream come true.”

We look forward to continuing this conversation at a state and regional level in the coming months. If you would like to participate in future discussions about the important issue of college access and affordability, please contact Jacob Hite at 206-443-8437 or

First Tuesday is a monthly conversation series for Philanthropy Northwest members to engage with each other in intellectual dialogue and peer learning. We are pleased to be offering this as a benefit to our members so they have a forum and means to connect in real time on issues, both emerging and persistent, that are important to members and our communities. Please contact Kristen Holway if you would like to propose or lead one of our future sessions. 


Submitted by D Rae (not verified) on

I'd add that increasing the success of getting a job after completing college is just as important. And that means connecting grantees to people and networks to find those jobs that often go to someone who has the social and economic connections to those desirable well paying jobs. It means opening up internships through the grantors collaboration with the business community. While money helps, for those who come from a different class, culture or/and are 1st or 2nd generation immigrants, those connections to get jobs are often nonexistent. It is still a "who you know" world to getting in, getting resources and getting a chance. Grantors can do better at closing this opportunity gap.