Higher education and social change are inextricably linked: by providing access to education, a scholarship program provides access to knowledge, resources, and opportunity for not only an individual, but a community. With many developing countries experiencing youth bulges and a growing young adult population, making higher education more accessible to underserved communities all around the world is a pressing issue. But who is responsible for driving and funding these efforts? More and more, we see foundations playing a role in establishing, molding, and funding scholarships.

Foundation philanthropic participation in higher education is not new, but why are they so interested, and what is driving the increase?

In the last twenty years, institutional philanthropy has played an increased role in international development and aid. Problems of access and equity – and the gaps created between privileged and underprivileged communities – have made a solid case for necessary funding expansion. Foundations have traditionally been seen as fit players, certainly capable of contributing to this growing demand.

In a recent study by the Institute of International Education, we explored the link between philanthropy, higher education, and social justice by asking why foundations are investing more in international higher education and what endeavors have been successful in bringing about positive social change.

So, if access and equity are driving forces behind foundations’ involvement in higher education, are these efforts effective?

The short answer? Sometimes.

Two preliminary findings emerged in our study. First, while foundation investment in higher education has increased overall, large-scale efforts to break down barriers to pervasive education access are not widespread. While themes of higher education access and equity have risen to the top of the development agenda, outcomes differ considerably from one context to another. There is an evident need for more foundations to support these initiatives.

Second, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Exclusion factors span from the quality of secondary education, geographical isolation, differentiation within ethnic and racial groups, lack of access to information, or simply being born or living in a region characterized by chronic marginalization. Programs that tackle higher education should take a nuanced approach to understand the context of the populations they are supporting, not focus solely on blanket approaches to scale-up.

Read the full article about higher education access and equity by Selma Talha-Jebril at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.