Strong Start To Finish

Three foundations launch network with $13M investment in English and math evidence-based practices to boost college graduation

New network answers call from postsecondary leaders for support in improving institutional practices


DENVER (August 15, 2017) —Three of the nation’s leading education funders today launched the Strong Start to Finish (SSTF) network. Their goal: dramatically increase the number of low-income students, students of color and returning adults who successfully complete math and English requirements in the first year of college and enter a program of study—a proven indicator for whether they will earn a degree, license or certificate with labor market value. Evidence shows that when college students get off to a strong start in their first year, their success triples in foundational courses, making them much more likely to graduate career-ready.

Students in the U.S. spend $1.3 billion annually on developmental education classes, according to a study by the Center for American Progress. These classes do not count toward college credit and many students fail to complete them, ultimately leaving them with high debt and no degree.

There is now growing momentum in higher education to better serve all students, regardless of their academic preparation, income level, age or race. SSTF is responding by ensuring that colleges and universities have the knowledge and capacity to apply the most effective practices to further this work.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation & Affiliates and the Kresge Foundation are providing initial funding. In coming months, SSTF will award three-year grants of up to $2.25 million to put proven education reforms into practice in key sites across the country. 

SSTF is built on evidence-based design principles developed by a group of national organizations with deep research and practice knowledge of effective student success strategies. The principles include placing the vast majority of students directly into credit-bearing work with the support they need to succeed; ensuring that students’ introductory English and math courses are both rigorous and relevant to their intended majors; and using modern data analytics to support students’ academic decision-making and the timely completion of their programs of study.    

“Strong Start to Finish is an opportunity to amplify this groundbreaking work being done by the postsecondary field so all students can succeed,” said Brian Sponsler, vice president of policy at Education Commission of the States, the national educational policy organization overseeing and coordinating the SSTF network.

“Despite important improvements, our postsecondary education system still lacks equity for low-income students, returning adult students and students of color. Too often, these students languish in developmental courses, accruing debt while being prevented from making adequate academic progress toward credential completion,” he said.

The three funders have previously invested more than $80 million to support efforts to improve developmental education, and believe that the evidence-based principles behind SSTF can change institutional practice and policy across the nation, leading to significantly broader student success.

“We believe that we now have the knowledge to dramatically expand the diversity of students who can excel in our institutions,” said expert advisory board chair and University of Texas at Austin professor Uri Treisman. “Our goal is to ensure colleges and universities are reliable vehicles for supporting the upward social and economic mobility of the millions of students seeking to improve their lives through a college education.”

SSTF will initially support sites that have a documented track record of success—and aims to accelerate their progress while helping others to learn from it.

"This collaborative effort is needed to transition our higher education system so it ultimately serves all students—and this will mean a fundamental change in institutional practice and policies across the country,” said Amy Kerwin, chair of the funder advisory board and vice president of community investments for Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation & Affiliates. “This is not an initiative designed to help ‘more’ students with developmental education needs succeed; it is an opportunity to help nearly all of these students succeed.”

The network’s funders stress this work will only achieve its full potential through additional collaboration, and are inviting philanthropic peers to join them in the effort.

First-round eligibility is limited to higher education systems, regions and metropolitan areas located in states where priority funders’ work is currently focused—California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, Washington state and Wisconsin.


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Chris Nelson
206-940-1605 (mobile)


About Strong Start to Finish

Strong Start to Finish is part of a growing network of higher education leaders and institutions, foundations and nonprofits pooling knowledge and funding to build a transformative framework for postsecondary education, ensuring millions of previously underserved students succeed in their first year of college and graduate career-ready.

The SSTF action plan: 

  • Expand the use of evidence-based practices in a set of states, postsecondary systems and metropolitan regions to help more students get off to a strong start.
  • Start in a few key areas, awarding competitive grants of up to $2.25 million to bring this knowledge to scale.
  • Learn together as we work, by systematically building and sharing knowledge.
  • Maximize philanthropic return on investment through innovative collaboration.