Higher Education as a Strategic Asset of our Nation and Foundations as a Strategic Asset of Higher Education

Council Insights: Council of Foundation Leaders

By David Bass June 2, 2023 March 29th, 2024 Blog Post, Council of Foundation Leaders

Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.

In its May 10 meeting, AGB’s Council of Foundation Leaders met with Lisa Foss, PhD, the executive director of the Council on Higher Education as a Strategic Asset (HESA), a newly forged coalition of national leaders hailing from higher education, government, business, the nonprofit sector, and the military that will develop and propose recommendations for ensuring that higher education institutions can deliver the workforce and educated citizenry necessary to address the United States’s most critical national priorities. The council is responding to challenges stemming from a rapidly evolving global economy and workforce needs and growing skepticism on the parts of some policymakers about the fundamental value of U.S. higher education as a strategic asset essential to the nation’s sustained economic growth and global competitiveness.

As Michael Crow, PhD, the president of Arizona State University and a cochair of HESA said, “The United States is falling behind in its vision for higher education, which is already endangering our security and competitiveness. We must act swiftly to reimagine collaborative approaches for higher education policy and funding that reflect changing economic realities.”

Unlike some of the important campaigns aimed at educating the public about the value of higher education, HESA will focus on developing policy recommendations for the U.S. president, Congress, state governors and legislators, and higher education governing boards and chief executive officers to improve educational outcomes and grow the talent needed to ensure a secure and prosperous future for the United States. HESA will also encourage the development of a national strategy to guide the effective support and utilization of the nation’s higher education strategic assets.

The council’s discussion underscored the critical role that college and university foundation boards can play as partners and advocates in the work of advancing higher education as a strategic asset of our nation. Institutionally related foundation boards are force multipliers for public higher education. For institutions that are part of a system, the foundation board may be the only governing board affiliated with and focused exclusively on supporting the campus. Unlike publicly elected or politically appointed institutional governing boards, institutions can strategically recruit foundation board members from the ranks of the most engaged, generous, and influential alumni of the institution as well as regional business and philanthropic leaders. (The most common occupations represented on foundation boards, in descending order, are banking/finance, venture capital, investment management, law, higher education, and medicine.) In this structure, foundation boards are themselves a strategic asset for higher education. This issue was explored in a terrific discussion at the 2023 AGB Foundation Leadership Forum and will be addressed again at the 2024 Forum in Los Angeles.

Independent of the political pressures that can inhibit the ability of appointed or elected boards to serve as policy advocates, foundation boards have long been important champions of public higher education. Through their generous philanthropic support, they are, in effect, co-investors in public higher education. In their fundraising, they act as venture capitalists, rallying philanthropic investment from others. AGB has always maintained that foundation boards can and should function as advocates on behalf of their institutions and higher education more broadly. As publicly supported charities, they need to be cognizant of federal and state restrictions on lobbying and political activity. They also need to collaborate closely with the institution’s government relations team to ensure that any advocacy undertaken by the foundation is appropriately aligned with and supportive of institutional strategies and priorities.

Public institutions educate nearly three quarters of undergraduates in the United States and almost half of all graduate students and have long been engines of opportunity for low-income, underrepresented, and first-generation students. They have been powerful drivers of regional economic development. As champions of public higher education, foundation boards are well positioned to help inform and advance HESA. The strength of the U.S. economy and our global competitiveness today is, arguably, the result of the cumulative impact of the Morrill Acts, the GI Bill, and the Higher Education Act of 1965. It is time for a new national strategy to extend this legacy.

David Bass is AGB’s executive director for philanthropic governance.

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