Insights & News

Making Higher Education Happen for More Students: Our Journeys in Two California Regions

How do you mobilize the many diverse players across an entire community to get more young people to and through college? It’s an essential but demanding job that many organizations and locales are pursuing in earnest—including ours.

As executives leading community foundations that serve Stanislaus and Kern counties, we represent two regions of California that are participating in the Community Philanthropy for Student Success Initiative (CPI) of College Futures Foundation. We joined CPI to fuel a shift toward need-based scholarships that enable our donors to invest in the higher education needs and economic future of our communities. Using funds and technical assistance provided to us through the initiative, we have strengthened and evolved our approach to scholarships: Today we engage a range of interested donors and vital local partners to support low-income students, who comprise a significant proportion of the population but who are underrepresented in higher education success. Specifically, our focus is on helping these young people access and in postsecondary education. Many are the first in their families to attend college.

While this work is important and beneficial on its own—together our community foundations award more than 400 scholarships each year, and that number is growing—our participation in CPI has affected us, and our communities, in an even greater way. Our involvement with a cohort of community foundations committed to this work, as well as our exposure to a set of experts and ideas provided as part of our learning in CPI, has elevated our vision and emboldened our efforts to pursue larger scale change. We see real opportunity to positively affect educational outcomes by participating in and contributing to a more systemic approach to college access and graduation in our respective regions.

Our colleague organizations in CPI are pursuing their own expression of this intent via leadership efforts that suit their particular circumstances. In Kern and Stanislaus, we are actively and productively facilitating region-wide movements that involve school districts and colleges, student service providers, funders, and government entities—all who have a stake and a part to play in the success of our young people.

As independent, community-based organizations, we are uniquely positioned to create space for the leaders in local school districts and postsecondary institutions to come together around a shared goal, identify specific problems that students face in their journey from high school to college, and co-develop solutions to address these problems.

While we knew this work would require a long-term commitment, we were heartened, early in our respective processes, to gain affirmation—including hearing from several stakeholders that they found inherent value in convening across segments of the local educational system as well as across public and private sectors. To be sure, this work is proving to be complex, and at times progress is slow—but we are far enough in to know that it is well worth the effort.

In Stanislaus County, we have launched “Stanislaus Futures” in partnership with educational, business, government, and other local service partners. Their work has already resulted in a one-year increase of 10 percentage points in Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completion rates. One of our lead partners, the Stanislaus County Office of Education, can point to increased college enrollment rates among participants in 6 Cups to College, a mentoring  program that pairs local first-generation high school seniors with business leaders to meet over, you guessed it, six cups of coffee during the course of a student’s senior year. The mentoring program began with 20 mentors and grew in 2017 to 200+ mentors and students.

Our “Kern Futures” initiative takes student scholarships to a whole new level—moving far beyond the financial awards to increase opportunities for more students while providing critical supports to ensure postsecondary completion. Over 80 percent of our awardees are the first in their family to attend college. And young men of color, a demographic group historically underrepresented in higher education, comprise 40 percent of scholarship recipients. These efforts have strengthened relationships with community partners, helping us create a critical safe space for them to come together and think differently about education in Kern County. Our efforts have produced the Kern Pledge, a historic document linking leaders from every level of education in a formal commitment to work collaboratively to fill the gaps in our K-16 education pipeline.

Both of our organizations have learned much about the importance of building trusting relationships and the power of engaging diverse thought partners, including our own board and staff members, in new ways. We each see a trajectory in which our community foundations have evolved in understanding our purpose, identity, and impact. We began as places to house and manage charitable dollars for the community. We encountered and responded to the opportunity to more deeply support area nonprofits, helping them build their capacity and sustainability. Today, we have something legitimate to bring to the table as community leaders. We can do so much more than make grants; we can contribute to real systems change—helping align approaches and investments across many dimensions of our region to make a greater difference for more students, families, and communities.

Of course, our ability to make a difference is tied to the capabilities and collaboration of central educational institutions. We are fortunate to have many leaders in our areas—K-12 districts, community colleges, and CSUs who collectively value postsecondary access and success for underrepresented students.

We find inspiration and insight for our journey from multiple sources, especially the efforts and achievements of other community foundations in and beyond our CPI cohort. Through CPI, we gained access to real-life examples from The Boston Foundation, Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, Community Foundation for the National Capital Region, and Yakima Valley Community Foundation. These cases help illustrate just how many different, effective ways there are to lead in community. They demonstrate the challenges that are bound to be part of a local leadership path, and they show the kinds of outcomes that can only be achieved by an organization stepping into a gap and focusing attention on a cross-cutting regional need.

On our quest to keep learning what matters and what works, we are excited to bring these lessons home—and to share them with others who aim to lead communities toward a better future through a bolder, broader commitment to educational success for all students.

Kristen Beall is President and CEO of Kern Community Foundation, a CPI grantee partner that provides scholarships to more than 300 students annually and, as part of its Kern Futures initiative, is aligning services provided to students across the county and creating a communitywide blueprint for student success at all levels of education. Kern Community Foundation manages 140 charitable funds and $20 million in total assets and has granted $18 million to nonprofits and scholarship recipients in Kern County, California, since the foundation was established in 1999.





Marian Kaanon is President and CEO of Stanislaus Community Foundation, a CPI grantee partner leading a series of initiatives spanning cradle-to-career educational goals, including Stanislaus Reads and Stanislaus Futures. Stanislaus Community Foundation manages more than 100 charitable funds and more than $23 million in total assets and has granted more than $13 million to nonprofits and scholarship recipients in Stanislaus County, California, since the foundation was established in 2002.