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Gates Sets Sights on Higher College-Completion Rates

By Scott J. Cech — November 14, 2008 3 min read
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The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation this week announced a new institutional goal with potentially wide-ranging repercussions for higher education: to more than double the proportion of low-income young adults who earn a college credential or degree by age 26, and to accomplish that by 2025.

The effort, which would increase the number of postsecondary graduates by more than 250,000 each year, was announced at a meeting of educators convened in Seattle—the foundation’s home base—along with other plans to revamp the education efforts of the grantmaking colossus.

“For the last 40 years, the U.S. has been encouraging enrollment and access,” foundation co-chair Melinda Gates told the gathering. “But the payoff doesn’t come with enrolling in college; the payoff comes when a student gets a postsecondary degree that helps them get a job with a family wage—and that’s not happening nearly enough.”

The foundation cited figures showing that only about half of U.S. college students graduate within six years, with the rate for African-American and Hispanic students closer to 20 percent.

“Our foundation has a vision of a thriving postsecondary market of community colleges, four-year colleges, online options, and for-profit institutions that would compete for students on the basis of price, value, and convenience—with a premium paid when a student completes a degree that means something in the workplace,” said Ms. Gates, who co-chairs the foundation with her husband, Bill Gates, who dropped out of college to co-found the Microsoft Corp.

Details of the plan are scarce so far. Foundation spokeswoman Marie Groark said the first set of grants will be announced in early December, but declined to project a total dollar value for the new endeavor, which aims to lift the proportion of low-income young adults with a postsecondary credential from 25 percent to 60 percent. “All we can say is that our giving over the last eight years in education ($4 billion) is a good estimate of what we’ll spend moving forward,” Ms. Groark said in an e-mail.

Ms. Gates said that “in the next several years, our work will focus on two-year colleges.”

A strategy document released by the foundation said early investments will support improvements in remedial education, “dramatically accelerating the rate of academic catch-up for poorly prepared young students.”

Mixed Reactions

Hilary Pennington, the foundation’s director of special initiatives and the co-founder of Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based research and policy-development organization, told educators in a separate speech: “[W]e will invest in networks of colleges, employers, and youth-serving organizations, rather than individual programs. ... We will invest in a handful of states and communities based on their concentration of our target population and their political commitment and capacity to move this agenda and reach our goal.”

Michelle Asha Cooper, the president of the Washington-based Institute for Higher Education Policy, a nonprofit research organization, applauded the initiative’s goal as “timely and appropriate” and said she hopes it would “help the higher education community address crucial questions and tackle persistent challenges.”

Lawrence Mishel, the president of the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, called the initiative’s goal “a great aspiration.”

“Unfortunately, this effort is coming at a time when the demand for college graduates is growing at the slowest rate in six decades, and that was before the current financial meltdown,” he said in an e-mail. “It seems to me to be equally important to make sure that the 69 percent of the workforce without college degrees has access to good-paying jobs.”

Kati Haycock, the director of the Washington-based research and advocacy organization Education Trust, said: “This decision to go after, to really focus on community colleges is a huge mistake in my judgment … because it’s the most broken part of the system.”

“If you ask me what we should do [to help] poor kids, get more of them into four-year colleges,” she added.

George Boggs, the president and chief executive officer of the American Association of Community Colleges, based in Washington, said he welcomed the foundation’s interest in community colleges, and called its goal “achievable.” He disputed Ms. Haycock’s characterization of community colleges, but acknowledged that “the truth is we really still need to do a better job” in enrolling and keeping students on track.

A version of this article appeared in the November 19, 2008 edition of Education Week as Gates Sets Sights on Higher College-Completion Rates

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