How One Foundation is Transforming Higher Education to Advance Equitable Student Outcomes

Higher Education | Foundation | Strategic Advising and Consulting

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation collaborated with Tides to strengthen its Postsecondary Success strategy focused on advancing equitable student outcomes. Discover how our partnership united organizations from across the U.S. to improve policies and practices dedicated to building more inclusive learning environments and improving graduation rates, especially among students from underrepresented communities. Our partnership with the foundation sheds light on how funders can leverage capacity building and peer networks to strengthen sectors and advance racial and economic equity. 


Postsecondary education is a critical pathway to opportunity, but historically the U.S. higher education system was not built to effectively support the success of all students. This is particularly true for students who often face barriers to achieving their educational goals, including Black, Latine, or Indigenous; first-generation students; students from low-income backgrounds; and those who are working adults and caregivers. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation worked with a diverse group of colleges and higher education supporting organizations to address this challenge. 

Tides Solution: Capacity Building

To achieve this goal, the foundation assembled a team of seven implementing organizations, including Tides’ Strategic Initiatives team, to launch Intermediaries for Scale (IFS), an initiative which provided grants and capacity building support to 13 organizations that serve US colleges and universities. After working with Tides to design and pilot a peer learning network aimed at advancing equity in higher education, the foundation turned to us again to develop and manage a custom capacity building strategy to support this complex, systems-change initiative. Tides supported the initiative by:

Co-designing and implementing equity-centered capacity building strategies by providing robust project management support and assembling the right team of consultants and issue experts  

Acting as a thought partner and sharing insights to inform the foundation’s strategy and approach

Working collectively with the foundation and other implementing partners to center the grantee experience by elevating their leadership, streamlining processes and activities, and building a trust-based culture


The initiative built on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s on-going investments in systems-level change in higher education through peer learning, capacity building and networks. Key learnings from the partnership for funders seeking to transform higher education systems include:

Capacity-building fuels impact far beyond the initial grant. With funding from the foundation, Tides-supported grantees leverage over $2 million for capacity building projects. These initiatives strengthened their ability to drive change independently and in collaboration with the IFS network. Tides’ Strategic Initiatives team facilitated the development and completion of these projects, which focused on financial planning, knowledge management, and strategy development. We also coordinated intensive workshops and peer learning sessions to strengthen shared understanding and skills in operationalizing equity, adopting data-driven continuous improvement processes, developing inclusive and impactful communications, and centering the student voice.

Networks play a crucial role in fostering lasting change and transformation. Transformation requires change at multiple levels — both within individual colleges and universities, and also within the networks and organizations that support and connect them. Networks like IFS provide important opportunities for different stakeholders to dig deeper into key issues, elevate and pilot potential solutions, and collaborate to create resources that spark and sustain long-term change.

Equitable outcomes require structures and processes that shift power and decision-making. The foundation, Tides, and the other implementing partners, were committed to centering the expertise of education nonprofit organizations, colleges, and students to advance the mission of creating a more equitable college experience. In support of this commitment, Tides’ Strategic Initiatives team established a working group that developed a robust new resource for engaging student voices in college activities and decision-making. This resource was informed and co-designed with students from across the country.