Article
November 12, 2008

Gates Foundation Puts New Focus on College Completion

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation plans to spend several hundred million dollars over the next five years to double the number of low-income young people who complete a college degree or a certificate program by age 26, foundation officials told an exclusive group of education leaders who gathered here on Tuesday to provide feedback on the ambitious plan.

If successful, the new postsecondary program would result in an additional 250,000 people per year with some type of higher-education credential. And it broadens the foundation’s already-generous spending on education, which previously has focused on secondary schools and college scholarships. Over all, the foundation plans to spend $3-billion on education during the next five years.

The foundation announced its new campaign at a conference attended by about 100 people, including current and former governors, prominent business executives and school superintendents, and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.

The new effort will initially focus on community colleges because of their relatively low tuitions and open admissions policies. Foundation officials said they would consider expanding innovative approaches to improve college-completion rates, such as using technology to allow a student to move quickly through remedial work, and forgiving a portion of debt each year for students who stay in college and are making progress toward a degree.

In a speech on Tuesday, Melinda Gates, a co-chair of the foundation, pointed to data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that more than half of all new jobs in the United States will require more than a high-school diploma. Only about 20 percent of low-income black and Hispanic students earn any sort of postsecondary credential.

“Completing high school ready for college is a key transition point in the path out of poverty,” Ms. Gates said. “A second transition is earning a postsecondary credential with value in the workplace. If young people fail to make the first transition, it’s unlikely they will make the second. If they fail to make the second, it’s likely they will be poor.”

Hilary Pennington, the Gates official who is leading the effort, said the foundation would announce a small initial round of grants next month, and that within a year, it would select eight to 10 states in which it will focus its work for the next three to five years. Grants will probably go to networks of institutions and organizations, rather than to individual colleges, she said.

Regret at Being Left Out

The foundation took some risk by presenting its general ideas to a high-profile audience before announcing even a single grant. Ms. Gates asked for “candid feedback” during sessions moderated by the journalist Juan Williams, and the foundation received plenty.

Some conference attendees wondered why the foundation—which has by its own admission achieved mixed results in its eight years of trying to improve high-school education—wasn’t spending more on elementary and middle-school education, rather than college completion.

“We made a choice,” said Bill Gates, a co-chair of the foundation and a co-founder of Microsoft. He said the foundation was motivated in part by new approaches that are helping students make it through certificate programs and community colleges.

University officials who attended, including Charles B. Reed, chancellor of the California State University system, urged the foundation to broaden its initial focus to include four-year institutions. And representatives of for-profit institutions grumbled that the foundation’s age cutoff—26—would exclude the many proprietary institutions that focus on adult learners.

The foundation has hired Thomas J. Kane, a professor of economics and education at Harvard University, to oversee an initial research effort. Vicki L. Phillips, the foundation’s director of education, said it would spend $500-million over the next five years on data and research related to college preparation and completion.

The Gates Foundation, which gives away $3.5-billion a year, far more than any other American foundation, is already an important force in education. It has spent $4-billion over the past seven years on efforts to improve high schools and on scholarships for low-income minority students.

‘Big and Bold’ Endeavor

But the new postsecondary effort was touted by foundation officials as the modern equivalent of the GI Bill, which helped millions of returning soldiers attend college.

“We must be as big and bold as we were at the end of World War II,” Ms. Pennington said. “And we must do everything we can to make certain that postsecondary education is not just about access but success.”

Gates Foundation officials said they would work in partnership with other foundations, especially the Lumina Foundation for Education, which focuses on expanding access to postsecondary education, and they would look to expand successful programs that have already been created by colleges or industry.

They will also support efforts to use technology more effectively. In a speech on Tuesday afternoon, Ms. Pennington cited Rio Salado College, in Arizona, which has a rich online course catalog that is complemented by online tutoring and support services, and a graduation rate that, at 60 percent, is double the national average.

The conference focused on both college readiness and college completion, and the majority of the discussion focused on how to improve high schools so that students could succeed in college. Attendees included Joel I. Klein and Michelle Rhee, the school chancellors in New York and the District of Columbia, respectively, and politicians who have worked to improve education, like former North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell participated by teleconference.

The foundation’s first efforts in education focused on creating smaller high schools, but Bill Gates said the foundation would now put more emphasis on improving teaching through new standards, curricula, and instructional tools.

“It’s clear that you can’t dramatically increase college readiness by changing only the size and structure of a school,” he said. “The schools that made dramatic gains in achievement did the changes in design and also emphasized changes inside the classroom.”

Through the postsecondary effort, the foundation is bringing its resources to bear on a problem that states and colleges have been grappling with for more than a decade, with little to show for it. Twenty years ago, the United States ranked first in the world in the percentage of adults between the ages of 25 and 34 who held a postsecondary credential. It has now fallen to 10th place, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The country’s financial crisis may aid the Gates Foundation as it tries to persuade states, school districts, and colleges to embrace structural changes and experimental approaches. The federal government and many states won’t have the money to lead a reform effort, noted Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, and a former president of Teachers College at Columbia University.

“That means the Gates Foundation could become the most powerful force in American education in the years to come,” he said.