Aligning financial Sustainability with student access and success

Retaining students with highest barriers to success can provide long-term financial sustainability for higher education institutions

NEW YORK (May 12, 2021) – A new study from 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, especially during a pandemic. Yet researchers found that these schools can improve their fiscal performance by reframing service to students with social and economic challenges--those from low-income households, who are first-generation and/ or are people of color--as an opportunity, rather than a challenge.

The “Aligning Financial Sustainability with Student Access and Success: Opportunities for Tuition Dependent Private Colleges” report reveals that redirecting resources to focus on student retention rather than student recruitment is more financially sustainable. Higher education leaders from four colleges and universities interviewed for the report recommend 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 RPA 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.

“Educators and higher education funders agree that in order to support underrepresented and under supported groups, academic institutions must provide additional resources to invest in these students to help ensure their success,” 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.”

Data collected from the College of Saint Mary, Benedict College, Iowa Wesleyan University and Dominican University of California spans multiple years and reveals how their investments in student success became critical to student retention and program completion during the COVID-19 pandemic.

To view the full report, please click HERE.

Press contact: TIAA Media Team, 888-200-4062,

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-winning  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 3/31/20212) and offers a wide range of financial solutions, including investing, banking, advice and education, and retirement services. 

About Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors
Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors (RPA) is a nonprofit organization that currently advises on and manages more than $400 million in annual giving by individuals, families, corporations, and foundations. Continuing the Rockefeller family’s legacy of thoughtful, effective philanthropy, RPA remains at the forefront of philanthropic growth and innovation, with a diverse team of experienced grantmakers with significant depth of knowledge across the spectrum of issue areas. Founded in 2002, RPA has grown into one of the world’s largest philanthropic service organizations and has facilitated more than $3 billion in grantmaking to nearly 70 countries. RPA also serves as a fiscal sponsor for more than 90 projects, providing governance, management, and operational infrastructure to support their charitable purposes. For more information, please visit