Key departures likely mean new strategy for Strada Education Network
Code Nation volunteer Evan Hammer helps students at the 2019 Code Nation Hackathon in New York City. Strada Education Network has awarded a $ 1.5 million grant to Code Nation, which teaches skills needed for high-paying tech jobs. (Photo courtesy of Strada Education Network)
The two highest paid executives of Strada Education Network have left the powerful education nonprofit in recent months, indicating that the Indianapolis-based organization is rethinking aspects of its strategy after four years of operation .
Gone are CEO William Hansen, former Under Secretary for Education under President George W. Bush, and Executive Vice President Carol D’Amico, a former Ivy Tech Community College executive who has been a key player in education circles. Indiana’s education for decades.
Strada said in a March 1 press release that Hansen was stepping down and COO Tom Dawson would become interim CEO. The organization said D’Amico left in February. Hansen did not respond to requests for comment, while D’Amico said she signed a nondisclosure agreement that barred her from commenting.
Both played a decisive role in the creation of Strada’s strategy, whose mission is “to improve living conditions by creating clearer and more focused paths between education and employment”. It is focused on improving the fortunes of the millions of Americans who have graduated from high school but do not have college degrees or degrees that meet the needs of employers.
The organization has launched a dizzying array of initiatives since its launch in spring 2017 – ambitions it has been able to pursue thanks to immense financial resources stemming from its roots in the student loan industry.
Prior to 2017, the organization was known as USA Funds, which for decades was the nation’s largest guarantor of student loans. In December 2016, he pulled out of the student loan business, transferring his guarantor business to Wisconsin-based Great Lakes Higher Education Corp., then decided to use his $ 1.2 billion in assets to support grants, investments, acquisitions, research and other efforts. which fit in with his new mission.
The circumstances surrounding the departures of Hansen and D’Amico are unclear. In an interview with IBJ, Strada president Marlene Coulis praised their contributions but declined to respond directly if they left of their own accord.
“He’s accomplished so much,” Coulis said of Hansen. “It just seemed like the right time to move on to new leadership.”
At the same time, Coulis indicated that changes in strategy were underway, although she said she would not label anything “seismic.”
She said the directors are fine-tuning Strada’s strategy, a process that will continue when the board meets in May. “From there,” she said, “we’ll figure out exactly what kind of CEOs can guide us into the next chapter.”
Coulis, a marketing consultant, added, “Instead of trying a bunch of different avenues to basically get our mission done, we want to be more focused.”
She also said: “You will hear a lot more emphasis on impact measurements in the future. … It is sometimes difficult in this area to measure the impact. You can measure the activity. We want to go a little further. “
Coulis also highlighted the January hiring of Ruth Watkins, president of the University of Utah, as president of Strada Impact, a position that puts her in charge of research, philanthropy, policy and research efforts. thought leadership of the organization. “It’s an integral part of refining our strategy going forward,” said Coulis.
In the press release announcing his departure, Hansen said he was proud of what Strada has accomplished.
“We have sought to build a new type of organization, recognizing that the problems that Strada’s mission seeks to resolve are complex and that only a coordinated effort can bring about lasting change,” he said.
Hansen, 61, has not announced a new job. At Strada, he made $ 1.6 million in 2019, the latest year available, according to an IRS filing. D’Amico earned $ 624,519, according to the filing. In March, D’Amico, 69, joined Indianapolis consulting firm Thomas P. Miller & Associates as a strategic advisor.
Nonprofit experts said it’s understandable and healthy for an organization’s board with a new mission to take stock of how things are going after a few years of operation.
“I think that’s a pretty natural development, considering that when Bill came in they were just starting to break into a new field,” said Les Lenkowsky, professor emeritus of public affairs and philanthropy at the Indiana University at Lilly. School of Philanthropy.
He noted that Strada was trying to push the needle at the national level in education and manpower issues, a particularly difficult task given how different regions of the country are from each other.
“In the world of education, it is difficult to think of projects that started at the local, state or regional level and spread nationwide,” he said.
Tina Gridiron, ACT’s vice president for equity and learning and former leader of the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation, said she was not familiar with all of Strada’s programs, but said the organization had a significant impact.
In particular, she highlighted two nonprofits acquired by Strada: InsideTrack, a provider of coaching for student success, and the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.
“I would say their partnership and collaboration with CAEL is a very important part of their work,” she said. “I have great respect for the work of CAEL, especially since it helps people with a university degree, but no degree codifies their work experience to earn college credit.
Indeed, these real-world experiences, validated by so-called prior learning assessments, inform the perspectives of adult learners, said Amy Dunham, senior vice president of marketing and communications at Strada.
She said CAEL had partnered with other organizations in a Strada-funded research project that found adults with prior learning assessments were 17% more likely to graduate and graduate. do it nine to 13 months earlier. He also revealed that the assessments saved students an average of $ 1,500 to $ 10,600 in tuition fees.
Teresa Lubbers, Indiana’s higher education commissioner, said Strada was making substantial contributions to the overall challenge of better aligning education and training with career opportunities – an issue he began to address before many other organizations.
“I don’t see them saying, ‘We’re going to turn the page on this and start over,'” she said.
Strada is one of two leading Indianapolis-based nonprofits trying to help more Americans earn college degrees and credentials.
The other, the Lumina Foundation, also has enviable resources. At the end of 2020, Lumina’s assets stood at $ 1.3 billion. In January, Lumina awarded a first round of grants of $ 3.2 million to 11 organizations working for racial justice.
On her website, Lumina – who sometimes partners with Strada on projects – simply describes her work: “We work with partners to create post-high school learning opportunities that benefit everyone.”
Both organizations owe their largesse to Indianapolis-based USA Funds, a nonprofit student loan company acquired by Virginia-based Sallie Mae in 2000. The $ 770 million in proceeds from that sale – which excluded the USA Funds loan guarantee activity – launched Lumina.
USA Funds loan guarantee activity declined after the Obama administration and Congress eliminated government-backed private student loans in 2010, eliminating the need for collateral for new loans.
Even though USA Funds has abandoned its loan guarantee operations to Great Lakes Higher Education Corp., now known as Ascendium Corp., Strada receives annual grants from Ascendium as part of the deal that will run until in 2022.
From 2017 to 2019, Strada received Ascendium grants totaling $ 208 million, a deluge that helped push Strada’s assets to $ 1.5 billion by the end of 2019.
The resources that Strada has amassed provide a great opportunity to stimulate change. The leaders of the organizations say they want to make the most of it.
“We have learned a lot in recent years about where and how we do the most good in a crowded area,” said Dunham. “Now is the time for us to apply our learnings and focus on the ways in which we can do the most good.” •