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New Research by TIAA Institute and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors Reveals Untapped Opportunity for Small Colleges by Retaining Students with Highest Barriers to Success

May 04, 2021

Aligning Financial Sustainability with Student Access and Success: Opportunities for Private Colleges shows the connection between increasing success for low-income and diverse student populations with an institution’s long term fiscal success.

NEW YORK (May 5, 2021) – A new study, Aligning Financial Sustainability with Student Access and Success: Opportunities for Private Colleges, published by TIAA Institute and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors (RPA), highlights long-term academic and financial opportunities for small colleges by attracting and retaining those students who face the highest barriers to enrollment and completion.

Private nonprofit colleges that are smaller, less competitive, tuition-dependent, and/or have relatively low endowments are consistently identified as the most financially vulnerable, even more so during a pandemic. Yet researchers found that these schools can turn around their fiscal performance by reframing service to students with the most challenges–those from low-income households, who are first-generation and/ or are people of color–as an opportunity, rather than a challenge.

In particular, the report shows the financial benefit to schools that shift resources to focus on student retention rather than costly student recruitment. Redirecting some of those resources toward keeping students in school is more financially sustainable. Through interviews with higher education leaders and in-depth profiles of four schools’ experiences, the report illustrates approaches such as collaborating across departments, partnering with peer institutions, and digging into data to better understand student needs and behavior.

“Concerns about financial sustainability, particularly for tuition-dependent colleges, are even greater in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Anne Ollen, managing director at the TIAA Institute. “The recommendations and strategies shared in this report reinforce that it is possible–even helpful—to keep student success front and center while addressing financial concerns. Financial challenges don’t necessarily require straying from institutional mission and values.”

This report is the fourth in a series by TIAA Institute and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors focused on the increasingly vital role of private philanthropy for public and private colleges and universities. It builds on the findings of the last report, Philanthropy in Higher Education: Priorities and Approaches of Private Foundations, which showed that an overwhelming majority of education funders prioritize grants that promote student access and success.

“There is alignment between educators and funders that have a shared mission for investing in the success of students that come from low-income households and populations subject to historic and structural discrimination,” said Greg Ratliff, senior vice president, advisory services for RPA. “We hope the findings in this report provide a useful lens for colleges seeking financial sustainability, as well as for researchers, advocates, and higher education funders focused on equity in student access and  success.”

The included case studies of College of Saint Mary, Benedict College, Iowa Wesleyan University and Dominican University of California span multiple years. The data shows how their investments in student success became all the more critical to student retention and program completion during the pandemic.

To view the full report, please click HERE.

About the TIAA Institute

The TIAA Institute helps advance the ways individuals and institutions plan for financial security and organizational effectiveness. The institute conducts in-depth research, provides access to a network of thought leaders, and enables those it serves to anticipate trends, plan future strategies and maximize opportunities for success. For more information about the TIAA Institute, visit and follow us on Twitter @TIAAInstitute.

About TIAA

With an award-winning1 track record for consistent investment performance, TIAA ( is the leading provider of financial services in the academic, research, medical, cultural and government fields. TIAA has $1.3 trillion in assets under management (as of 12/31/20202) and offers a wide range of financial solutions, including investing, banking, advice and education, and retirement services.

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