It’s an Honor: What a Foundation is Doing to Boost College Access and Completion

MB Images/shutterstock

MB Images/shutterstock

The Woodward Hines Education Foundation (WHEF) is helping Mississippi students to obtain post-secondary certifications, credentials and degrees. While there are a lot of funders engaged in this space, the foundation’s efforts are exclusively focused on one of the poorest states in the nation, and include some unusual approaches to boosting college access and completion.

A while back, the Jackson-based funder awarded a $50,000 grant to Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society to help low-income college students in Mississippi gain access to the honor society at 15 community colleges. Following these membership grants, the foundation conducted a study and determined that PTK members were twice as likely as other Mississippi students to finish college and three times as likely to transfer to a four-year school.

This is one of the few philanthropy-backed efforts we’ve come across that regards the honor society as a key to college completion. And the results are promising enough that WHEF increased its grant commitment to PTK to more than $400,000. The foundation will continue to track the PTK members’ progress over the next several years.

The student success rates for PTK members are largely attributed to high rates of engagement with faculty and staff, better access to scholarships, more personal and professional development opportunities, and, simply, a higher expectation to finish college. Furthermore, some schools, such as Jackson State University, offer full tuition, room and board, and the cost of books automatically for PTK members. That’s a huge benefit for low-income students who otherwise might be unable to afford such costs.

The Woodward Hines Education Foundation sees its investment in honor societies as a potential model for other funders looking to support student success. PTK has a rich database of transfer scholarships with more than 700 colleges and universities throughout the U.S. While the WHEF grant is only focused on Mississippi students, it is confident that honor societies can help community college students succeed elsewhere.

Aside from its support of PTK, WHEF last year awarded a four-year grant of $900,000 to Achieving the Dream (ATD) to bring two Mississippi colleges into this national network to increase community college student success. Achieving the Dream was first conceived by the Lumina Foundation in 2004, working with the American Association of Community Colleges, MDC, Inc., and other partnerships. In 2008, the Gates Foundation made a $16.7 million grant to develop the organization. The Kellogg Foundation is another important funder. 

On its website, ATD notes that nearly “one-half of all students seeking higher education choose a community college,” but that fewer “than half of those students actually finish what they start.” ATD’s national network includes a wide range of partners focused on changing that, and continues to expand, with several community colleges joining in recent weeks.

“At a time when state funding to Mississippi’s 15 community colleges serving 75,000 students is being reduced, it is hard for colleges to move the needle on postsecondary attainment,” WHEF president and CEO Jim McHale told Inside Philanthropy. “Our board recognizes that a college degree is a game changer, and they want to invest in institutions like Achieving the Dream that support the important work of community colleges and enable them to better serve all students.”

When asked what the greatest education needs are at the local and state level in Mississippi right now, McHale told us how this foundation thinks a lot about postsecondary access and success.

“Almost 30 percent of Mississippi’s children are born into poverty,” he said. “But if those children earn a postsecondary degree or credential, they have a 90 percent chance of moving up.”

Another big priority for this foundation is educational attainment as an economic driver. It’s estimated that at least 65 percent of jobs will require postsecondary credentials by 2020, but the attainment rate in Mississippi is only at about 37.5 percent right now.

“Currently, 41 states have set attainment goals and are working toward increasing postsecondary attainment rates,” McHale said. “Mississippi is one of only nine states that has not yet set a goal. We believe that increasing college access and success (postsecondary attainment) will improve the individual lives of Mississippians and the state as a whole.”

WHEF intends to further center its efforts around college persistence and completion in 2019, funding the work of colleges and universities who seek to assist students in financial need to get through school. McHale’s piece of advice to local grantseekers is to strike up a conversation with the foundation.

“We love getting to know people and learning how organizations are working to improve the lives of Mississippians through education,” McHale said. “Although we have a formal grant process, we welcome informal conversations that allow us to get to know you and you us.”

Related: A New Push to Get Community College Students in Mississippi Across the Finish Line