Texas Gets an Incomplete

The Gates Foundation gives Texas community colleges the boot in Completion by Design project. State officials are surprised and disappointed by the decision, but vow to continue work.

August 14, 2012

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has terminated a high-profile college completion grant in Texas, a decision one community college leader in the state called abrupt and surprising.

Dubbed Completion by Design, the $35-million grant encourages groups of two-year colleges in four states to work together to keep more low-income and young students from slipping through the cracks and to better help guide them on a pathway to graduation. Teams of colleges in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas beat out 27 teams in nine states to participate in the five-year project, which began in 2010.

The Lone Star College System led the Texas cadre, which included the Dallas County Community College District, El Paso Community College and South Texas College. Completion initiatives have been popular in the state, including with lawmakers. Texas is a young, growing state, not to mention big, and will be a key cog in the achievement of any national college completion goals. The five Texas colleges participating in the Gates project enroll 289,000 students, accounting for one-third of the state’s community college students.

But the Texas group got bad news last month that the Gates money would be cut off, shortly after the participants completed the planning phase for Completion by Design. The colleges had yet to begin the project’s implementation and state policy-oriented portions. Completion by Design will continue in the other three states.

Richard Carpenter, Lone Star’s chancellor, said the foundation gave little notice before ending the grant. The group had received less than $1 million so far, and will not get the remaining $4.3 million that had been slated for the program.

“We’re a little bit frustrated,” Carpenter said. “That was a shock.”

Carpenter sent an e-mail about the news two weeks ago to all employees of the system, which is located around Houston. His message offered some rare public criticism for the foundation.

“The decision by the foundation not to provide funding reflects an unfortunate lack of commitment to the goal of increasing student success and completion at community colleges in Texas,” wrote Carpenter, who called the move “unexpected and unfortunate.”

Carpenter, however, stressed in an interview that support from Gates had given the colleges a big boost. The group is determined to continue the completion push as part of the newly named Texas Completes, according several officials in the state. The institutions will make use of the work from the foundation-funded process, which gave the colleges access to national experts on student success.

“We’re in a much better place than we were before,” Carpenter said, adding that “we’re proud of our association and partnership with Gates.”

'Too Big to Succeed'?

Neither the foundation nor Texas college officials would say what went wrong.

Some observers said the relative independence of the state’s community colleges posed challenges for the goals of the foundation, which typically expects visible results. In contrast, a cohesive statewide system, like the one in North Carolina, might be better suited for the level of coordination required by Completion by Design.

Carpenter, in his e-mail to Lone Star employees, said Gates officials had determined that Texas is “too big to succeed.”

Others, however, said the group led by Lone Star deserved some of the blame. One source at Lone Star, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, said project leaders from the system were disorganized.

For their part, Gates officials declined to comment on the decision to curb funding in Texas, citing the foundation’s standard protocol. However, Suzanne Walsh, a senior program officer at Gates, who had helped oversee the Texas project, said Completion by Design was not designed to be a sure thing from start to finish. “There are no guarantees from phase to phase,” she said.

The program is structured so that groups of community colleges can support each other and think big on improving graduation rates, Walsh said. And the eventual plan is to take success from those cadres and replicate them statewide.

Walsh said the foundation remains interested in completion efforts in Texas, including the new Texas Completes.

“We wish them luck and we’ll be following the work,” said Walsh.

Kay McClenney, a Texas-based national expert on community colleges, had been an adviser to the project. She agreed with Carpenter and others who said news of the foundation pulling the plug had helped motivate the colleges to step up their game and continue the project.

That reaction has been an “entirely appropriate and courageous -- and entirely Texas -- response,” said McClenney, who directs the Center for Community College Student Engagement. “Some very good things will happen for Texas community colleges.”

The four colleges had planned to pony up plenty of their own money for the project. And Carpenter said that while the loss of Gates’s money stings, “it certainly is not enough for us to not continue.”

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board is backing the reconstituted project, a spokesman said, adding that lawmakers and private industry recognize that the state’s two-year colleges “are the backbone of our higher education infrastructure and key to a strong Texas economy.”

Also at the table is the Texas Association of Community Colleges. Rey García, the association’s president and CEO, said his group will help push statewide policies related to the completion plan.

“The Gates decision is a disappointment,” García said. “We’re working very hard to make sure it’s not a setback.”

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Paul Fain

Paul Fain, Contributing Editor, came to Inside Higher Ed in September 2011, after a six-year stint covering leadership and finance for The Chronicle of Higher Education. Paul has also worked in higher ed P.R., with Widmeyer Communications, but couldn't stay away from reporting. A former staff writer for C-VILLE Weekly, a newspaper in Charlottesville, Va., Paul has written for The New York Times, Washington City Paper and Mother Jones. He's won a few journalism awards, including one for beat reporting from the Education Writers Association and the Dick Schaap Excellence in Sports Journalism Award. Paul got hooked on journalism while working too many hours at The Review, the student newspaper at the University of Delaware, where he earned a degree in political science in 1996. A native of Dayton, Ohio, and a long-suffering fan of the Cincinnati Bengals, Fain plays guitar in a band with more possible names than polished songs.

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