Study: Mixed Record for Gates Scholarship Program

By Debra Viadero — April 30, 2010 2 min read
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Launched in 1999 with a $1 billion grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Gates Millennium Scholars program has over the years helped cut college costs for more than 13,000 academically talented minority students from low-income families. The intent of the program is to improve educational opportunities for disadvantaged students and to help develop “a new and diverse generation of leaders to serve America.”

The way it works is that selected scholars get “last dollar” scholarships to help them close the gap between the financial aid the university offers them and their college costs. Graduate scholarships are also available to students who agree to major in seven fields that the foundation considers key, such as computer science, engineering, math, and science.

So how’s it been working out? Well, as they say in the research business, results are mixed.

In a study of more than 5,000 college students that is due to be released today at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, researchers from the American Institutes of Research found that, five years after starting college, the Gates scholars were indeed more likely than a group of demographically and academically similar counterparts to have graduated from college or be on track to graduate. Higher proportions of the Gates scholars also enrolled in graduate or some other type of post-baccalaureate program or at least aspired to enroll in one.

The grant recipients were also more likely overall than nonrecipient peers to attend colleges that were ranked in the top 10 by organizations such as U.S. News & World Report—but not in every year studied. That led the AIR researchers to wonder whether students were “undermatching” themselves to colleges. In other words, were they applying to less-selective schools when they could have aimed a little higher?

At the graduate level, the scholarships also failed to entice more Gates scholars to study in one of the key fields the program identified. The program goal was to persuade 35 percent of the scholars to enter those fields, but, year after year, less than 25 percent chose one of those routes. And the Gates scholars were no more likely than nonrecipients to pursue those fields.

Also, even though the program provided an initial leadership retreat for freshman scholars and enough money so that they didn’t have to get a paid job while they were in school, the program participants didn’t always exercise their leadership potential on campus. According to the study, they were less likely than nonrecipients to be leaders in college organizations, yet more likely to take a leading role in community groups.

Another problem, the researchers found, was that universities routinely used the Gates funds to supplant the financial aid they typically provided students. The money was intended to be a supplement to whatever package of loans and scholarships the university was already offering.

The bottom line: While not uniformly rosy, the findings seem to puncture any misconceptions over whether bright, minority students from disadvantaged families can make it at the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities. With a little additional guidance or mentoring early in high school and college, the AIR researchers conclude, the success rates might be even higher.

I don’t yet have a direct link to the report, but you can try to look for it later today on AIR’s website.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.