Trends in Higher Education Funding
Trends in Higher Education Funding

By Liz Shay, Senior Grants Development Consultant - Higher Education


Institutes of higher education have a wide variety of grant programs available to support efforts on campus. Many different federal, state, and foundation funding sources focus either specifically on higher education or fund higher education projects as part of their larger grant funding priorities. Broadly speaking, this funding for higher education predominantly falls within three categories: student learning outcomes, workforce development, and faculty research. These major types of funding programs have remained relatively consistent over the last few decades. However, within these categories, specific funding priorities tend to shift due to political and cultural priorities. Read on for a deep dive into five of the current major funding trends in higher education.

Priority 1: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)

STEM education has been a consistent area of focus for grant making for several years already and continues to be a major area of interest to this day. Most funders interested in STEM focus across all fields. There are some funders, as well as specific programs within some more broadly focused funders, however, who are interested only in particular areas within the STEM landscape. These more specific programs typically fund projects within areas of high job growth, such as computer science or advanced technologies. Funders are interested in helping students get the education required to enter in-demand STEM fields. Often aligned with this priority is a focus on fields where the United States would like to be more globally competitive. This can be in areas where US students’ test scores are lower than those of students in other countries or in areas where the US currently issues a large number of H-1B visas for non-US-citizens to work within the US.

Priority 2: Infrastructure Job Training

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, brought huge funding amounts to many different areas of US infrastructure. A sizable percentage of these monies will be used to implement infrastructure improvements across the country in areas such as broadband, green energy, and advanced transportation. Funding is dedicated within this bill for workforce development and training initiatives in these same fields. There will be a demand for skilled installers and maintenance technicians for many types of infrastructure, leading to a need to train people to fulfill these jobs. Even outside of funding directly from the IIJA bill, funders are also aligning their own workforce development initiatives to match these infrastructure-related needs. Many state and foundation funders are designing grant programs that will support infrastructure training initiatives that directly align with their own state planning efforts related to infrastructure implementation so that they can hire local labor to complete their projects.

Priority 3: Upskilling and Reskilling

As is probably clear by now, there is a lot of interest from grant funders to meet current and future labor demands through education and training programs. Although many of these programs have previously focused on students already enrolled in two- or four-year institutes of higher education, we are seeing an increase in funding for upskilling and reskilling efforts. In these cases, higher education schools (predominantly community and technical colleges in this case) actively recruit non-traditional students who have already entered the workforce and are now looking for a chance to develop additional skills to move into middle- and high-wage jobs. Many grant makers are also interested in supporting efforts to get students to reenter higher education if they left without completing a program as well as recruiting veterans into these training programs. Many of the upskilling and reskilling grants are particularly interested in projects that will provide short-term credentialing opportunities where students can either complete their education while also working or can be trained up quickly to be able to reenter the workforce.

Priority 4: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated and highlighted the challenges certain students, particularly those from traditionally underrepresented groups in higher education, face when trying to enter and complete their degree programs. Grant makers are increasing the attention they are placing on diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts across many or all of their grant programs. They are also increasing their support for programs specifically designed to increase participation in and persistence with higher education programs for students from particular groups. In some instances, these programs are specifically dedicated to funding projects at minority-serving institutions. In other cases, programs are open to all institutes of higher education so that they can support students from traditionally underrepresented groups, particularly for in-demand fields. Grant makers also want to increase the variety of institutes of higher education they are funding across all of their programs. This is especially true for faculty research grants where there are targeted efforts to fund research projects and capacity-building efforts at institutions who have had little past research funding.

Priority 5: Public-Private Partnerships

Grant makers understand the importance of public-private partnerships to maximize the expertise that can contribute to particular projects, as well as the impact of grant dollars on outcomes of interest. Over the last few years, we have seen an increase in the number of programs that require public-private partnerships to be eligible to apply. In some cases, this collaboration is focused on employers sharing information about their labor needs and providing advice and feedback on curriculum design to ensure that programs align with those employment demands. Other collaborations are more focused on the research side of higher education efforts. Grant makers are interested in projects that help translate academic research findings into products and services in the commercial market. They also are interested in projects that help governments meet the needs of their residents through innovative solutions designed and studied by academic researchers. Regardless of the type of partnership for a particular grant, funders want to see diverse expertise brought together to create comprehensive projects that fulfill areas of interest.


Higher education holds a prominent place in the grant funding landscape and there are many opportunities to help institutions implement innovative approaches to support their students and research faculty. Although there are grants to support a wide variety of different potential project types for institutions, current trends show a few areas where there is considerable focus by grant makers. Consider your school’s strategic planning efforts and where there may be alignment with current grant funding trends to focus programmatic design and grant pursuits.


Caption: Institutes of higher education always have a wide variety of grant opportunities to facilitate their innovative projects to support students and faculty. Although the broad types of fundable projects do not change much from year to year, the specific focus areas and trends are impacted by current events and societal impacts.