Our Vision: More Graduates for a Thriving California

Today, almost two thirds of California’s public school students are from low-income families or from population groups that historically have had low rates of college success. The economic and civic future of our state is synonymous with the success of these students. They will be our workforce, civic and community leaders, and parents of the next generation.

Over the past decade, California’s public secondary and higher education systems have dedicated themselves to increasing student success, with good results. High school graduation rates have steadily increased, and the percentage of students who are qualified for college increased by almost 50 percent. Similarly, college graduation rates in California’s four-year universities continue to improve.

Nevertheless, too many qualified students encounter insurmountable barriers in their pursuit of higher education. Despite growing demand for higher education, the state has failed to take the steps to ensure that public four-year universities have the capacity to accommodate these eligible Californians. We believe it is a moral, social, and economic imperative that California’s educational system provide every student the opportunity to attend and successfully complete a college degree. Moreover, disparate outcomes based on economic circumstances or race, ethnicity, or gender are unacceptable.

This is why we at College Futures are committing our resources to pursuing an ambitious two-pronged goal for California: (1) increasing the rate of bachelor’s degree completion among California students who are low-income and populations with historically low rates of college success; and (2) closing the racial, ethnic, and gender gaps that begin in high school or earlier and persist through college completion.

Our Focus: Students at the Center of our Work

We come to our work from a student perspective. California students and their families believe in the importance of a college degree to their future prosperity. Unfortunately, they find themselves stymied by requirements or barriers that keep them from accessing or completing a college education, including: lack of information and financial resources; conflicting requirements for entry, remediation, and graduation; or confusing transfer pathways between community colleges and universities. We focus on targeted, strategic ways to improve how California and its educational systems and institutions provide the information, channels, and resources students need to complete a bachelor’s degree.

All Educational Institutions Share Responsibility for Student Success

Identifying and understanding institutional obstacles that block or slow down a student’s college trajectory is a first step. Too often, however, this turns into finger pointing between educational institutions, or detailing of students’ shortcomings as a way to explain unsatisfactory results. We are trying a different approach—reframing student success as a responsibility shared by all the educational institutions that students attend on their way to and through college.

Most low-income California students attend colleges within commuting distance of their homes. These attendance patterns create opportunities to align educational offerings, expectations, and opportunities among high schools, colleges, and universities serving those students. We support local and regional secondary and postsecondary institutions to identify major barriers and work together to improve college success.

We have chosen to concentrate our efforts in three geographic locations—Los Angeles, the Inland Empire, and the San Joaquin Valley. They have among the lowest educational attainment rates in the state, and six in 10 low-income California students live in these three regions. Working regionally allows us to support interventions tailored to different economic and cultural conditions, populations, and priorities, an important consideration in California where one size seldom fits all.

Increasing Educational Attainment Is a Key to Thriving Communities

Working in regions also means that increasing educational attainment is linked with strategies to improve regional economies. We are supporting a few regional efforts that include bachelor’s degree completion as part of a broader regional economic development agenda. These efforts involve school districts, colleges and universities, businesses, and civic leaders working together to set regional education goals, to align leaders, resources, and decision-making, and to measure progress—all in pursuit of student success and thriving communities.

Practice Informs Policies for Better Student Outcomes

California’s existing higher education policies reflect a longstanding commitment to making college available and affordable for its students. Over the past few years, however, we have become convinced that the biggest obstacle to increasing bachelor’s degrees in California, particularly among low-income and first-generation students, is the system of financing and budgeting for higher education. Therefore, we have embarked on an effort to build a shared understanding between public policy makers and higher education leaders of the higher education finance problem as well as realistic ways to solve it by presenting a comprehensive issue analysis, offering a framework for reform, and supporting a candid, practical conversation that we hope will lead to a sustainable financing system for our four-year public universities.

Improving higher education to improve student success and meet the future needs of California will require more than an improved system of finance. We need policies that support effective practices to improve student outcomes and encourage innovations within and across institutions. We need policies that are responsive to the problems practitioners in the field identify. We believe we need strong state policy and advocacy groups to inform and support such changes. In the coming year, we plan to expand this capacity to our focus regions.

How We Work

Over the years, we have met committed and inspiring educators, administrators, and civic leaders who are devoted to the success of their students. We have seen how respect for their knowledge, support for their ideas, and the willingness to take a long view pays rich dividends.

Our hope is to achieve with our grantees and other partners a shared vision and sense of purpose, strong and lasting ties, common language and information, and the ability to learn and adapt. Instead of leading with solutions, we encourage and support our partners to look at their student data, identify issues, explore alternatives, and plan practical and tailored solutions. We also encourage them to think of themselves as part of a regional educational ecosystem. In the process, we aspire to be both a committed supporter and a friendly critic and questioner. For us, a relationship of mutual trust and respect is as important as the interventions themselves—and the interventions cannot succeed without such a relationship.

Initiatives Advance our Funding Priorities and our Learning Agenda

We have organized our work by initiatives which advance different elements of the Foundation’s work. Each initiative has its own goals, strategy, and set of activities, but each is an integral part of the overarching foundation strategy. All are strengthened and supported by additional activities that reinforce the program interventions: data sharing and analysis, technical assistance, professional networks, strategic communications, and leadership development for our grantees and partners. Finally, all have a built-in learning agenda to gather lessons that can inform our work and be shared with others working for student success.

Find more information about our initiatives here:

Pipeline to Degree: Partnering with K-12 and postsecondary institutions to enhance student expectations, preparation, and interventions so that more young people get to and through four-year college and earn bachelor’s degrees.

Community Philanthropy for Student Success: Partnering with community foundations to create long-term, sustainable funding for need-based scholarships to help more young people succeed.

Higher Education Finance Reform: Building a shared understanding between public policy makers and higher education leaders of the finance system challenges facing California public universities, as well as practical ways to solve them.

Regional Partnerships: Supporting cross-sector, cross segment efforts that include bachelor’s degree completion as part of a broader regional economic development agenda.

Young Men of Color:  Raising awareness of equity gaps in postsecondary outcomes, especially for young men of color—and effective practices to improve them—through research and data analysis, technical assistance, strategic communications, and support for policy and community advocacy.

Higher Education Innovation: Provided a platform for postsecondary institutions awarded state innovation dollars to further strengthen and scale their productive new approaches to student success. Going forward the Foundation will explore efforts to align incentives and create mechanisms to encourage innovations aimed at increasing bachelor degrees.

Strategy Documents