Grants from Gates, on College Completion

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announces first awards of new initiative emphasizing access and outcomes for low-income students, focusing on increasing scale of proven practices.
December 9, 2008

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation today announced its first round of grants to improve U.S. college enrollment and completion rates, directing $69 million largely to support research and the development of policy recommendations, and building in many cases on work also funded by other foundations, largely to try to ramp up practices and programs that have already been proven effective.

The Gates Foundation publicly rolled out its plans to focus on access and completion, with the stated intent of doubling the number of low-income students who earn a college credential, in November, following months of rumor and speculation.

In framing the grant awards in a news release, the foundation stipulated a “commitment to using data to shape its investments by building on the most promising programs and policies already under way, catalyzing innovation in areas where there has been limited success, and, over the longer term, bringing the most promising practices to scale.”

As one example, MDRC, a research-oriented nonprofit organization, received $13 million over four years to expand its Performance-Based Scholarship Demonstration. More than 4,500 low-income students in four states will receive the scholarships, which are tied to certain performance outcomes (like maintaining a minimum grade point average), and are intended to supplement state and federal aid. The initiative grew out of positive findings from a similar project at two Louisiana community colleges, which involved $1,000 per semester grants and was notable in part for its random selection of students to receive the scholarships -- a method that will be repeated.

“There’s more demand than there are scholarships, so students will be brought in and then randomly assigned into getting the scholarship or not,” said John Hutchins, MDRC’s communications director. "And then we’ll be following them for several years to see what the effect is of the scholarship on their academic achievement or their retention in school." The project involves colleges throughout California, through the California Cash for College program, as well as the Borough of Manhattan and Hostos Community Colleges in New York City; Lorain County, Owens and Sinclair Community Colleges in Ohio; and the University of New Mexico. MDRC expects to produce a report on its findings in 2012.

As another example, the Chicago-based Ounce of Prevention Fund received $305,719 from Gates to pursue exploratory research on barriers to postsecondary education for young, low-income parents in three cities -- and then to address the parents' barriers in their children’s educational settings.

“The goal is really to use that information to develop a pilot intervention program, using the [early education] centers as delivery mechanisms for supporting their continuing education,” said Diana Mendley Rauner, executive director of Ounce of Prevention, which, “first and foremost” is a provider of early education programs.

Among the other grantees, Learning Point Associates will study and compare short- and long-term labor outcomes among for-profit and public two-year colleges, with attention to how colleges respond to employers’ priorities. The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education received $5.4 million over three years to support the publication and marketing of its biennial report card for higher education, “Measuring Up,” which was released last week. Some entities received funding to convene meetings or symposiums, including the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, which plans to bring together state leaders on the topic of creating longitudinal data systems.

MDC received $16.5 million to identify promising strategies in remedial education among community colleges and states participating in the broader Achieving the Dream initiative. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce received $2.9 million, and the University of California at Los Angeles $7.6 million for a study intended to determine the “needs, desires and challenges” of 16 to 26-year-olds in high-poverty areas in California, and, per the Gates Foundation release, “use this information to create the better conditions for student success in postsecondary education and the labor market.”


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