A prominent national nonprofit that measures how successful colleges and universities are in graduating Latinos is one the recipients of historic funding from billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
The $10 million grant that Excelencia in Education received this week is the largest sum the organization has had since its founding 17 years ago.
“It was very powerful, after years of hard work,” said Deborah Santiago, Excelencia’s co-founder and CEO. “To see this validation for our community. That was powerful.”
Excelencia was singled out by Scott's foundation for its “a data-driven approach to identifying organizations with strong leadership teams and results.
College enrollment among Latino students has been increasing over the past decade, reaching a record high in 2017. But Latinos still lag significantly in college completion. At least 22 percent of Latino adults have earned an associate degree or higher, compared to 39 percent of the general population. Some of the barriers preventing Latinos from finishing college includes the high tuition costs, a limited knowledge of college, and trying to balance work, family and academics.
Excelencia has created a "Seal of Excelencia" designation it gives to colleges and universities whose specific programs show a measurable increase in Latino graduation rates.
A number of colleges and universities touted by Excelencia for its programs also received funding from Scott, including El Paso Community College, Florida International University, Long Beach City College, University of Texas at San Antonio and University of Illinois at Chicago.
Some of the institutions are part of Excelencia’s Presidents for Latino Student success, a network of college presidents and chancellors who have pledged to make Latino college attendance and completion a focus of their campus.
Santiago said she was not expecting a $10 million grant when she got an email on a late Friday afternoon asking when she was available to speak over the phone about something important. She drove to the house of co-founder Sarita Brown, where she made the phone call and they found out together.
The donation is “invigorating," — we're a small nonprofit and it is not easy to get resources, much less unrestricted resources," Santiago said.
“To say, here's $10 million, you pick what you want to do with it, no strings attached, no reports required, allows us to do many things we see our community wants and needs to be able to do that," she said.
After she and Brown congratulated each other, they talked about how to “double this down,” Santiago said. Santiago said she hopes the $10 million “will bring attention to other potential funders — we really want to get the kind of investment that's going to serve our community.”
The grant Excelencia in Education received is part of a $2.7 billion charitable spree that Scott, 51, and her husband, a Seattle science teacher recently announced. Scott is ranked as the third richest woman in the world, according to Forbes. Scott’s net worth is $53 billion, most of which she acquired through Amazon shares after divorcing Bezos.
Scott is known for her unexpected donations to charities and racial equity causes. This is her third major philanthropic gift.
With Scott's funding, the nonprofit can amplify its analysis on what schools can do to boost Latino graduates with a high-quality education, Santiago said, "so they can be part of the workforce and leadership of our country.”