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The U.S. Education System is Ripe for Innovation—And Investment Can Help

With a series of recent investments in innovative new education models, the SunTrust Foundation is promoting intentional collaborations that improve outcomes for students and help prepare them for the workplace.
By Laura Wise
graduation education

This article series is sponsored by the SunTrust Foundation and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.

Education is a powerful tool. Often seen as an opportunity for advancement both socially and economically, education lies at the center of a country’s ability to grow, thrive and compete in the global economy. It’s no secret; however, that student performance and equitable access to quality education in the U.S. is lagging behind. 

The SunTrust Foundation is making strides to change that. With a series of recent investments in innovative new education models, the philanthropic arm of SunTrust Bank believes that change is not only necessary to help fill today’s skill-based jobs and those of the future but also will likely only happen through intentional collaborations. 

With a new grant strategy that resembles the investments made in the venture capital world, the SunTrust Foundation is partnering with a number of organizations that are looking to make a big change in the U.S. educational system.  

Why we need innovation in education

According to the Pew Research Center, when comparing the science, math and reading scores of 15-year-olds across 90 countries, the U.S. ranks right in the middle of the pack. In addition to a less than ideal achievement ranking, changes in the job market have compounded the issue. By one popular estimate, 65 percent of children entering primary school today will ultimately work in fields that don’t exist yet—making it all the more important to prepare young people for a rapidly evolving workforce. 

If we were to look at education on a micro-level—state to state and district to district—it’s apparent that race and socioeconomic status are also major determining factors in the level of and access to quality education. 

If we hope to prepare young people for the jobs of the future and compete in a global, increasingly competitive economy, it’s clear we need to take a second look at how our educational system works. 

A VC-like investment strategy drives new models forward

Innovation in education starts with the people and organizations who are passionate about creating change. But as nonprofit organizations—within the education space and beyond—face funding shortfalls, they increasingly depend on engagement and investment from the private sector to bring their solutions to scale. 

With the goal of helping their clients live a life well spent, education is a core area for grant-making at the SunTrust Foundation. Through a targeted series of investments in innovative models, the Foundation hopes to help remove systemic barriers to quality education. 

This investment strategy isn’t only about today, but also about seeing the outcomes bear fruit into the future, explained Stan Little, president of the SunTrust Foundation. “These [investments in] innovations in education are really geared toward the goal of income generation, employment and career development” for students over the long term, he told TriplePundit. 

Little, an engineer by training who came to SunTrust Bank from the tech world, is leading the charge in creating this culture of innovative investments at the Foundation. He describes grantees not as beneficiaries of the Foundation’s capital, but rather as a portfolio of investments. 

“We think about this like a balanced portfolio with an aggressive part of the portfolio and a sustaining part of the portfolio,” Little explained. “Although there are a lot of metrics about lives impacted in individual circumstances … [our investments in] innovation are really more like venture capital—young, new, untested, theory-based—and it could be a moonshot.”

The Foundation’s current portfolio includes nonprofit and community organizations looking to drive solutions at all levels of education, from early childhood to postsecondary. 

Take, for example, the Girls Leadership Academy of Wilmington (GLOW), an all-girls public charter school based in Wilmington, North Carolina. With a stated focus on educating the “whole girl,” GLOW says it offers a learning environment that nurtures the emotional, physical, and academic needs of every student, from grades six through 12. It also looks to inspire its students—90 percent of whom are from low-income backgrounds—to get interested in science, technology, engineering and math, with a maker’s lab that gives girls hands-on training in STEM-related skills.

edX is another organization with an innovative new approach to tearing down barriers to education. A nonprofit founded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, the organization is pioneering a "MicroBachelors" degree to make postsecondary education affordable and widely attainable for more people. 

The SunTrust Foundation also invests in 3DE, a public-private partnership operating in  greater Atlanta and expanding nationally that delivers a high-school structure and curriculum in an engaging experiential environment with hopes of better preparing students for life beyond the classroom. 

The bottom line 

As the fourth industrial revolution continues to dictate how we learn and work, organizations that are fusing technology with the learning process have an opportunity to create lasting change in the lives of individual students and in our country. Hacking the future of work will require partnerships that bring forwarding-thinking corporate citizens together with passionate educators. 

In the coming months, in partnership with the SunTrust Foundation, we’ll profile the above organizations and more—and we’ll take a closer look at how innovative corporate partnership models can push the education conversation forward.

Image credits: MD Duran and JodyHongFilms via Unsplash

Laura Wise headshot

Laura Wise writes and speaks about business, philanthropy, corporate social responsibility (CSR), technology, and entrepreneurship. You can check out her portfolio here

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