Leveraging DREAM Acts

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

May 7, 2015

By Michael Dannenberg



Here’s a not so random hypothetical.

Say a wealthy philanthropist from the Midwest wants to help high-achieving, undocumented students in Chicago get a good college education. He or she is dismayed that federal financial aid isn’t available to every talented, undocumented young person who often is brought here through no choice of their own, plans to stay with their family long-term, and would like to contribute to our country. The philanthropist passionately believes in education equity and calls you asking for help in deciding how to spend say $20 million on college aid for undocumented students in a way that promotes equal educational opportunity.

What do you say?

Some would try to convince the philanthropist to give to another cause. Let’s assume that’s not an option. Yes, Illinois already assures undocumented students in-state tuition at public colleges and universities. But that doesn’t apply to the target population who might want to attend a local non-profit, private institution or an out-of-state public or non-profit, private institution.

You could tell or help the philanthropist set up his or her own scholarship program like the Jack Kent Cooke scholarship program. Or you could tell the philanthropist to donate their $20 million to an existing scholarship program that reaches undocumented students like the Hispanic Scholarship Fund.

But here’s the problem: philanthropy for individual scholarships doesn’t leverage broader support for educational equity, which your philanthropist believes in passionately and also wants to support.

If not the Hispanic Scholarship Fund (HSF), you could recommend giving to another organization that provides direct scholarships to undocumented students and also advocates or lobbies on behalf of public policy proposals like the DREAM Act. Or you could recommend splitting the investment between scholarship providers like HSF and advocacy organizations like the National Council of La Raza or Education Trust (Disclosure: I used to work there). Neither are bad options.

Here’s another thought, though. A number of individual colleges provide institutional financial aid for undocumented students. These colleges, like the University of Chicago with its $5.7 billion endowment, tend to be fairly wealthy. They often don’t need another $20 million even if it is for disadvantaged students. More importantly, they all too often are not engines of educational equity. In fact, the University of Chicago, which ranks in the bottom 5% of all colleges nationally in working class and low-income student enrollment, is an engine of inequality.

But not all colleges are as wealthy as the University of Chicago and the under-resourced ones tend to do a better job on college access for students from low-income families.

Our Midwestern philanthropist should consider contributing scholarship aid for undocumented and other needy students only to needy individual colleges and universities that make a “meaningful commitment to diversity” and education equity. In higher education, that means schools that serve minority and working class students and gets them through — to degree completion in comparable numbers.

It just so happens there’s a great example of such a school in the Chicago area and a nearby example of a not-so-great school when it comes to educational equity. 

Workbook1 Both Dominican University and Saint Xavier University are pretty good non-profit, private colleges when it comes to access and enrollment of students from low-income and working class families. But check out Dominican’s completion rate as compared to Saint Xavier’s. Not only is Dominican higher, but there’s virtually no education equity gap between white and underrepresented minority students. In fact, Dominican has the highest completion rate of similar colleges nationwide that serve similar students with similar levels of academic preparation.

Our philanthropist, all education philanthropists, should consider giving to Dominican University and similar schools doing a relatively good job on educational equity. And in the process they should challenge nearby Saint Xavier University and similar schools to do a better job.

Maybe President Obama’s long-awaited college ratings system will offer donors guidance. If not, call us. No consulting fee required.