Blog: Caroline Altman Smith

Caroline Altman Smith is a program officer at The Kresge Foundation in Troy, Michigan.  In this role, she helps manage the national portfolio of education-related grants, which are focused on improving access and success in undergraduate education.  Prior to joining Kresge in summer 2008, Caroline worked at the Lumina Foundation for Education in Indianapolis, Indiana for five years.

Caroline earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and American Studies from the University of Virginia as well as a Master of Arts degree in Philanthropic Studies and a certificate in Non-Profit Management from Indiana University.  She has served on the boards of Girls Incorporated of Indianapolis, the Alumni Executive Committee of the Center on Philanthropy, and the founding board of Giving Sum, a giving circle for young professionals.  She is a member of the Michigan College Access Network Advisory Council and the Chair of the Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP) National Board of Advisors.  She and her husband live in Royal Oak.

Caroline Altman Smith - Most Recent Posts:

Post 5: The Workhorses of Higher Education

The helicopters roared overhead, the sirens wailed, the procession of SUVs zoomed by, the flashbulbs popped, the press badges flashed, the VIPs wilted in the summer heat and finally the president appeared at… a community college!  Last summer, President Obama chose Macomb Community College as the site of his first visit to Michigan since his Inauguration.  At Macomb, he announced that the nation needed five million more community college graduates by 2025 than it is currently on track to produce, and he pledged to push for speedy congressional approval of a major new source of funds to help accomplish that goal.

Fast-forward to the present day.  While only about $2 billion of the originally hoped-for $12 billion has survived the budget reconciliation process, this still represents an unprecedented level of federal attention and resources for these institutions.  The nation's 1,200 community colleges now enroll almost half of all U.S. undergraduates, and are receiving increased recognition for the critical role they play in training and re-training workers during the recession.  There are 28 community colleges in Michigan, including several in Metro Detroit (Macomb Community College, Oakland Community College , Wayne County Community College District, and Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn).  

These colleges serve more than 150,000 local students, including those seeking associate's degrees, the opportunity to transfer to a four-year college, job training, or recreation.  (The potentially motley crew can make for moderately entertaining sitcom viewing).  Community colleges have to juggle the educational needs of all of these folks, which requires impressive resourcefulness and flexibility.  These colleges are uniformly overworked, underfunded and these days, over-enrolled: many of them have experienced student surges of 10 percent or more in the past year.  While community colleges generally pride themselves on keeping their doors open to all students, Wayne County Community College had to cap enrollment this spring for the first time in its 40-year history.  The enrollment growth has been so great that some colleges around the country are forced to hold classes in the middle of the night.

The mission of community colleges has historically been access (y'all come), but the field is under pressure to shift its focus to improving the rates at which students succeed (as measured by whether or not they eventually leave school with a certificate or degree).  Graduation rates vary significantly between and within colleges, but generally only about 1 in 3 community college students will earn a credential or two- or four-year degree within six years.  Our nation's education system hemorrhages students at every step of the pipeline, including higher education; this is hugely inefficient and inequitable.  If we focused on doing a better job of helping the students who get to college actually graduate, we could practically double the nation's college graduation rate.

Michigan Radio reported yesterday:

A state house committee takes up the budget for Michigan's community colleges this week.  The state senate has already discussed cutting community college funding by 3 percent.  That on top of local tax revenue declines, could translate into a lean budget year ahead for Michigan's community colleges.

The current generation is the first in U.S. history to be on track to be less well-educated than its parents.  To improve this situation, we need to make sure that the pipeline of students who are prepared to enter college remains strong.  But we also need to ensure that community colleges--which serve disproportionate numbers of low-income students, students of color, and people who are the first in their families to attend college--have the resources and support needed to help students finish what they start.  Strengthening institutions like community colleges to achieve the goal of significantly increasing the college attainment rate could be a major game-changer for our region and our country.

Post 4: Kids With College Dreams Need to "Know How 2 Go"

According to a March 11th article in the Detroit Free Press, only "about 58 percent of students graduate from Detroit Public Schools and 78 percent from charter schools while fewer than 25 percent of those students enroll in college." What?!  Only 1 out of 4 kids in Detroit who successfully emerge from high school with diploma in hand will actually go to college?  Sad but true.  Unfortunately, this widespread lack of educational opportunity and achievement is not unique to our city.  In many major urban school districts, it's shocking how few students complete high school, and how few of those that do will take the next educational step and enroll in college.

When you ask middle-schoolers of all income levels, research shows that almost 90 percent say they want to go to college.  So, we know kids are getting the message that "college is an important key to your future." Yet even with these high aspirations, only a small percentage of those kids will eventually enter higher education.  Why do so few students (especially those who are low-income or students of color) who make it through the trials and tribulations of high school actually enroll in college?

There are a multitude of reasons, including financial barriers and affordability, academic under-preparedness, a lack of high-quality advising and guidance, pressure to work to support the family, etc. Students and their families must navigate a labyrinthine process to get through the doors of post-secondary education: academic requirements, college trips, admission forms, filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, and negotiating financial aid packages can cause many to get lost along the way.  This process is tricky enough even if you've got a support network of parents and siblings who are college graduates, but much more challenging if no one in your family ever went to college before.

The Ad Council (the folks who brought you such PSA chestnuts as "Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk," and "Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires") developed a major national public awareness campaign called "Know How 2 Go" aimed at helping students and families understand the steps needed to get into college.  The Kresge-funded Michigan College Access Network has secured Michigan's spot as one of the states that will participate in the campaign.  (Stay tuned for billboards, bus station posters, and radio and TV spots in the coming months and years). distills the basic steps middle- and high-schoolers need to take to turn college dreams into reality:

1)   Be a pain (in a good way): Kids should tell everyone they know they want to go to college, and look for adults that will help them get there.

2)   Push yourself: Take the toughest classes their high school offers.  Taking (and passing) rigorous classes in high school is the best predictor of college success.

3)   Find the right fit: Explore colleges that are a good match.

4)   Put your hands on some cash: Apply for financial aid and scholarships to help pay for college.

Students that follow these steps will greatly improve their chances of successfully making it into college. But they need caring adults to help them get there.  One of the key underpinnings of the campaign is that kids need supportive adults in their lives to help them stay on track, and even if a parent or high school guidance counselor can't provide the help they need, kids need to keep searching and asking 'til they find someone willing to help them achieve their goals. Mentoring kids and fostering or strengthening their college dreams, whether it's through a formal program that the Metro Detroit Mentor Collaboration can match you with, or informally in your family, church or neighborhood, goes a long way toward increasing the odds that a kid will stay in school and make that transition from high school to college. Tomorrow I'll talk about what happens when they get there.

Post 3: Going for the Education Gold

"By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world."

Achieving President Obama's lofty goal, stated last year in his first joint address to Congress, means radically disrupting our current trajectory: only 39 percent of our fellow Americans will earn a two- or four-year college degree, and this number has been stagnant for four decades.  Meanwhile, right next door in Canada, the 60 percent rate is the highest in the world.  In Michigan, we are seven percentage points shy of the nothing-to-brag-about national average: only 32 percent of the state's 5.2 million working-age adults (aged 25-64 years) have at least a two-year degree.  The numbers vary widely by county, from the state's best educated county (Washtenaw, home of U-M, at 62.4 percent) to the UP county with the lowest college attainment levels (Luce at 14.5 percent).
According to the 2000 U.S. Census, these numbers also vary significantly within the metro area:

Oakland: 53.3%
Macomb: 34.9%
Wayne: 26.5%

Needless to say, these varied rates have significant impact on wages, tax revenues and the ability to attract new businesses.
What used to qualify as best in the world is now tenth among developed countries, just ahead of Finland.  This is not an area in which the U.S. can or should be below average.

We don't let countries like France, Italy and Korea beat us in pop culture or in piling up Olympic medals—why should we let them beat us in the much more critical realm of educational attainment? 

These other industrialized nations have decided that getting more of their citizens into and through college deserves and demands an innovative, equitable approach and generous, focused resources.
Part of the reason these other countries have made more progress than we have in recent years is because they view higher education as a public good, and not a private one.  Consequently, they are willing to make it as accessible and affordable as possible for people to pursue.  As anyone who makes a monthly payment to "Aunt Sallie" knows, in the U.S. we pay comparatively staggering rates for the privilege of attending college.  We believe a college degree will raise your personal earning power and help you get ahead in life, so your parents should start saving up from the moment of conception and you should be willing to work hard and pay market rates to get an education. 

Many other countries more heavily subsidize college, because they know that college graduates live longer and healthier lives than those without degrees, are overall more civically engaged (as measured by voting, volunteer work, blood donations, and other indicators), and earn approximately $1 million more over their lifetimes than those with only a high school degree (which means a stronger tax base).  We know that a college degree pays off for individuals and for our society—but how much of a difference does it really make?
The group CEOs for Cities has done some fascinating research on the economic benefits that accrue to cities that raise their college attainment levels.   They've determined that "Nearly 60 percent of a city's success, as measured by per capita income, is explained by the percentage of college graduates in a city's population."  Small improvements in this regard make a big difference: even a one-percentage point increase, which they call the Talent Dividend, can mean billions more dollars in economic activity. 

In the Detroit metro area, raising the college attainment rate by only 1 percent would be worth $3.4 billion and would mean creating 29,738 additional new college graduates. 

Collectively, the effects could be enormous in cities across America: "An increase in college attainment rates by one percentage point in the largest 51 metro areas yields $124 billion in additional personal income each year for the nation." This framing is so compelling in part because it takes the sometimes touchy-feely realm of educational opportunity and translates it into cold, hard economic reality--all with a hopeful and can-do spin, because increasing anything by 1 percent doesn't sound overly daunting. 

CEOs for Cities has launched a National Talent Dividend Network, and Detroit has signed on as one of the 19 founding members that pledge to raise their attainment level by 1 percent in the next 2-4 years.  Good for Detroit! This is a great sign and an achievable goal and will be good for Detroit and good for the country. 

And how do we get more students to take the steps needed to get into college? Watch this space tomorrow for information about an innovative campaign to do just that.

Post 2: So, You Give Money Away For a Living?

Most people have a general sense of the work of nonprofit organizations.  They may have run in a charity 5K, attended a march, volunteered at a soup kitchen, mailed in or texted a donation, and are reminded of the critical work of these organizations when they enter a school or place of worship.  But private foundations are a bit more mysterious, and some consider them the black box of the nonprofit sector.  I frequently get a blank stare when chatting with an airplane seatmate (or close relative) when I say I work for one.

Foundations are nonprofit organizations that operate under a particular part of the tax code.  They maintain endowments (big piles of money that hopefully generate interest) that grow tax-free, and by law have to give away at least 5% of the value of their assets each year.  (So, a foundation with $1 million in assets has to spend at least $50,000 per year on charitable purposes.  What those purposes are is up to the foundation's board.  If the endowment grows by more than 5 percent in a given year, the more the better, and that means the payout pot will be larger the following year).  Private foundations exist in an alternate nonprofit universe where the challenge is not to raise money, but to give it away.

Giving money away is easy; giving money away well is more challenging (but still easier than raising it).  It is a big responsibility to be entrusted with the strategic distribution of taxpayer-subsidized dollars, and also a real privilege to have the opportunity to seek creative ways to use resources to promote social change.  As a foundation staff member, I get to be both reactive and proactive in my work.  Nonprofit organizations from all over the country fill the foundation's mailbox with ideas and proposals and I look for those that align with the foundation's strategic goals and plans.  I also actively seek out organizations and committed leaders doing impressive and innovative work in the field and look for ways to support their efforts.  This might be by recommending that the foundation board award grant funding, or by offering other types of support: sharing best practices, providing capacity-building consultants, convening groups of organizations in a learning network, or helping connect them with other potential sources of funding.

The Kresge Foundation is one of the three biggest foundations in Michigan (the others are the W.K. Kellogg and C.S Mott Foundations), and the largest in the metro area.  It was founded in 1924 by Sebastian Kresge, the man who brought you Kresge's five-and-dime department stores (which much later became K-Mart), and has now grown to be a Troy-based $2.8 billion national foundation that awards approximately $150 million in grants annually to nonprofits.

I work on the education team, one of Kresge's six program teams (which include arts and culture, health, human services, the environment, and Detroit and community development).  Throughout the foundation's history, its relationship with higher education institutions  was mainly as a funder of bricks and mortar projects, e.g., building new campus libraries or renovating classroom buildings.  But in the past two years, Kresge has begun to expand its education grantmaking to address an emerging national and regional imperative: the need to significantly increase the number of college graduates.  The focus of Kresge's higher education agenda is helping more underserved students (those who are low-income students, students of color, or the first in their families to go to college) get into college and successfully graduate.  Why is this so important, and how would Detroit benefit if we managed to make even a modest improvement in our region's college attainment rate?  Stay tuned tomorrow to find out!

Post 1: We're Moving to Detroit!

"Why would you want to do that?"

This was not the "Welcome to the neighborhood" my husband, Christopher, and I expected when we announced our plans to move to Detroit from Indianapolis.  We were at a local hotel, in town to scope out a potential move, and clearly our disparaging clerk was not properly trained in hospitality.  At least that's what we hoped.  

But no. The locale low morale continued.

When chatting with the cashier at the grocery store, we mentioned how positive our first impressions of the area were, and she said "That's nice, but I can't wait to get out of here."  We were surprised by (and a little afraid of) these responses, but decided to make the move and give Detroit a try.  Although we had never spent time here, we were attracted specifically by a good job opportunity at the Kresge Foundation and more generally by the sense that Detroit was a gritty Rust Belt city with a lot of potential. 

We bought a house in Royal Oak because of its convenient proximity to both Troy (where I work) and downtown Detroit (where we play).  We were drawn to Royal Oak's vibrant Main Street, the leafy parks placed every few blocks, but most of all its walkability. (We used to check out the walkability of all the homes we were considering).

Metro Detroit has far exceeded all of our expectations.  The history, the people, the music, arts, culture, delicious food, varied neighborhoods, dysfunction, decay, political turmoil—say what you will, this is not a boring place to live.  It amazes us that even after 18 months of exploring, there is still so much to see and do here.  The challenge is always weighing numerous interesting options as opposed to struggling to find good ideas for what to do or where to eat.  We've made a point of inviting friends from around the country to visit us, and all of them leave excited about what they've seen and experienced in Detroit.  

Christopher and I met in college as volunteer tour guides at the University of Virginia, so our visitors know that they are signing up for a structured and fact-filled weekend when they make the trek to Detroit.  We've got our standard itinerary in place for weekend guests: Friday night at the DIA, dinner at El Barzon, Saturday morning at Eastern Market with lunch at Supino Pizzeria or Mudgie's Deli, a walk through the Heidelberg Project, tour of Hitsville USA, a book-lovers ramble through John K. King Books, a Tigers or Red Wings game (depending on the season), drinks at the Park Bar and late night shawarma at Bucharest Grill, and a slow Sunday start at one of Royal Oak's Bloody Mary bars (a particularly inspired brunch innovation never-before-seen outside of Michigan).  

When we drive friends and family from out-of-town around to see the city, their jaws drop when they see Michigan Central Station, and they want to pull over and take a picture when they spot a boarded-up house with a tree growing through the roof.  I have to tell them that unfortunately, this is not an isolated photo op and no matter the route selected, there will be much more urban decay on the tour.  While people are shocked and saddened by scenes of abandonment and disinvestment throughout the city, they are inspired, delighted, and impressed by many other landmarks and signs of life.

We believe it is our responsibility to spend money in Detroit (we were able to get all of our Christmas shopping done in one hour at the Urban Craft Fair), spend our leisure time there, root for the sports teams (this includes our quixotic status as Lions season tickets holders), and volunteer. 

I travel frequently for work and people are always fascinated to know "What's going on in Detroit?  Is it really as bad as it looks in the news?" While there are still widespread negative perceptions of Detroit in the national media (and even much closer to home), I take every chance I get to be a small part of improving the narrative by talking up the positive aspects of our community and inviting people to come see it for themselves.  Now when I hear others being disparaging about our new home, I have learned to parrot Inside Detroit's city-booster entreaty: "Say nice things about Detroit!"

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