Microgrants: Education Philanthropy For The Everyman

A $300 gift for books can make a huge difference for a low-income student struggling to stay in school. 

A $300 gift for books can make a huge difference for a low-income student struggling to stay in school.


We all know the satisfaction of affordable luxuries. A tall latte to go. Some chilled luscious shrimp artfully arranged atop your salad. A donated bus ticket that gets a poor student to college.

Okay, you weren’t expecting that last one, and it’s more affordable philanthropy than affordable luxury.

But to anyone horrified by the college admissions scandals, worried about the rich-getting-richer trend, and wanting to do something about it that’s within your means, affordable luxuries and affordable philanthropy become the same.

Affordable philanthropy, known as microgrants, is something I ran across while researching a book on what it takes to get low-income students not just into college, but through college. There’s a long list of what it takes to make that happen, but microgrants rise to the top of the list, partly because they are effective and partly because they are a way for people of modest means to make a big difference.

Microgrants cover the little stuff that nobody thinks about but can detour a student forever. Like that $60 bus ticket. Like $300 for books. Like $500 for an emergency visit home.

I first encountered microgrants while visiting Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, where I met Mya Jackson, who is African American and grew up poor in very rural Gaston, N.C. She was a good student and got great scholarships to attend F&M, but little things threatened to trip her up.

It was far colder in Lancaster than where she grew up, and the lack of winter gear made her reluctant to venture out. That meant she was less likely to form friendships, less likely to seek academic help, more likely to feel sad and isolated — and likely to teeter on the brink of flunking out.

After her first semester she visited her charter school principal back home at KIPP Gaston College Preparatory and revealed that the cold was one of the reasons she was flailing. Immediately, the principal gave her a spare winter coat and ordered her long underwear.

KIPP Gaston runs a microgrant program, supplied by an outside donor, that covers a variety of unexpected expenses, including the small stuff. When I saw Jackson — who was wearing both the coat and the long underwear — her college experience had turned around. “This semester is actually like a complete 360,” she told me.

The microgrant “movement,” if it can be called that, may have its origins at the KIPP schools in Washington, D.C. Today, KIPP DC operates two microgrant programs. The Persistence Fund Scholarships, which started five years ago, help with both small and larger expenses, all aimed to keep a student in college. And the newer Match Fund Scholarships help with the extra tuition needed to attend a college with a higher graduation rate.

Aaron Ford, who grew up in D.C.’s high-poverty 8th Ward, was a persistence grant recipient. His family lacked the means to pay for college, so he started out at a community college, Allegheny College, to get the basic courses affordably out of the way. Then he switched to Maryland’s Towson University to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Ford had sufficient scholarship money to pay for tuition, but lacked funding for living in Towson, a gap of $5,000 per year. So he turned to KIPP, which over two years gave him $10,423. “Without that persistence money, I’d have been a little lost.” Ford graduated on time, and today works for a Virginia insurance company.

The match grants are just as essential to ensure graduation. An example: A KIPP student was accepted to Delaware State University, which has a minority graduation rate of 36%. With a match grant of $9,500, the student was able to accept a spot at Temple University, where the minority graduation rate is 65%.

KIPP launched its two microgrant programs with the help from a large family foundation, and today sustains it through both foundation grants and fundraisers, such as the annual “KIPProm,” where basic tickets go for $125 and VIP dinner tickets for $225. Affordable.

Microgrants are spreading, both within KIPP and beyond. The Panther Retention Grants at Georgia State University dramatically boosted the graduation rate there. And New York-based Achievement First charter network just announced a college undermatching program that mirrors what KIPP does.

In Dallas, Big Thought, which targets youth likely to get left behind, uses microgrants as a rescue tool — getting someone quickly out of a toxic living situation or helping with a legal problem that threatens to derail college. “For young people who are living on the edge, having access to emergency or cost-of-living resources is the difference between finishing and thriving or not,” said Byron Sanders, president of Big Thought.

In fact, microgrants are acquiring a startup feel. RaiseMe just introduced “micro scholarships,” designed to give community college students incentives to keep on track to earn a four-year degree.

What these microgrant programs offer is a pathway to affordable philanthropy. Every bit as satisfying as that tall latte and salad shrimp, maybe even more.