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Throughout its history, the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) and its related philanthropies have been involved in the improvement of education at all levels. This focus on education has derived from the RF’s conviction that knowledge is one of the essential keys to the betterment of humankind.

Clean-up & school improvement, Legrand School, Montgomery county. #10. Same view as No. 9. After Improvements.

Legrand School After Improvements, Montgomery County (Alabama) 1914

The Earliest Efforts

Before the incorporation of the RF in 1913, the General Education Board (GEB) had been devoting substantial resources to the improvement of education in the American South for ten years. At the heart of GEB initiatives was the provision of basic education for poor whites and African Americans. The organization also offered financial support for post-secondary education, including historically black colleges.  By 1913 the work of the GEB expanded as it took on an enormous new program to reform medical education throughout the United States.

International Programs

Internationally, the largest recipient of RF funding was China’s Peking Union Medical College (PUMC). Opened in 1919, this world-class medical college helped to introduce and develop westernized medicine in China. In its nearly 100 years, the college has trained several generations of medical professionals and revolutionized the practice of nursing in China. Today, PUMC retains an international reputation for medical education.

In 1923 the International Education Board (IEB) was created by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. The IEB provided funding in the form of institutional grants as well as individual fellowships. IEB funding transformed the study of science and agriculture worldwide and helped to inspire breakthroughs in physics, chemistry, math and astronomy.

Continuing a Tradition

As the IEB was phased out in 1938, and as the same happened to the GEB in 1964, education initiatives were folded into the general work of the RF. Later programs in education responded to the rapid political and social transitions that characterized the second half of the twentieth century. In 1961, the RF initiated the University Development Program, which directed RF resources toward the improvement of post-secondary education in the developing world. By equipping the next generation of leaders with a quality education, the RF hoped these nations would overcome many of the challenges they faced, whether in the fields of education, agriculture, engineering or political leadership. 

As the civil rights movement progressed domestically, the RF hoped to replicate GEB successes in supporting the education of African-American and other minority students. Through an Equal Opportunity Program developed in 1963, the RF provided funding to prepare minority high school students for college, and it offered university scholarships for black students.