The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced plans Tuesday to focus its time -- and hundreds of millions of new dollars -- on college completion, particularly at community colleges.
The plans represent a dramatic expansion of the foundation's already considerable work in education and could evolve into an unprecedented philanthropic focus on community colleges.
In announcing the plans, at a meeting with education leaders held in Seattle, foundation leaders spoke with passion not only about the importance of higher education, but about the poor graduation and retention rates at many institutions. "America has long known about the value of a college education -- but a fair-minded critic might say: 'You don’t know the half of it! You’re working to get more students into college; you should also be doing a lot more to get them through college,' " said Melinda Gates, in prepared remarks  outlining the college plans.
"For the last 40 years, the U.S. has been encouraging enrollment and access -- with federal aid like Pell Grants and guaranteed student loans. That’s important, and it has helped. More young people enrolled in college this year than ever before," she said. "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 college completion rate in America has been flat since the 1970s. We were once first in the world in postsecondary completion rates, we now rank tenth. That’s a danger for the nation’s economy, and it’s a tragedy for our citizens."
As a result, she said that the foundation's work in education would focus on "not just college enrollment, but college completion." The foundation plans two major efforts in the years ahead, she noted. One will focus on helping more disadvantaged students finish high school so that college is a possibility for them. The other will focus on college completion. The emphasis will be on community colleges, she said.
"These are the schools that enroll the majority of low-income students," Gates said. "Most community colleges have open admission, low tuition rates, and with 1,200 of them around the country, most people live near one. Community colleges have untapped potential for getting students the credentials they need to earn a living wage."
The foundation plans four major parts for its giving related to college completion:
- Shifts in financial aid policy. Gates said that the foundation is "going to explore how the huge amount of financial aid in this country could be used as an incentive to encourage completion. This will include working with partners to develop changes in tuition and government funding so the college gets less money at the front end, just for enrolling a student, and more at the back end, after that student receives a diploma or credential."
- Changing student incentives. The foundation plans to look for ways to structure scholarships to "provide greater financial incentive to finish school." Gates said that pilot studies financed already suggest the value of "giving students scholarships if they increase their course load to full-time dramatically increases completion rates." The foundation plans to try this type of scholarship over the next three years in as many as 8 states and 15 postsecondary institutions.
- Building partnerships. The fund wants to promote better communication between colleges and local employers so programs are designed to meet local needs and students know the preparation they need to get jobs.
- Improving remedial education. Gates said that the foundation would "push for improvements that accelerate academic catch-up for students who are behind. Only one-third of all students enrolled in remedial education ever pass the exam and go on to earn college credits. One-third! The rest get bogged down in remediation and quit."
While Melinda Gates presented the plans Tuesday about improving completion rates at community colleges, Bill Gates spoke about new efforts to improve high schools. The foundation has already focused on high schools and he said that there have been impressive results in many individual schools supported, but limited success in spreading those ideas widely. In his prepared remarks,  Gates said that the new effort would focus on school structures, clear standards, and improved teaching and support for teachers.
The underlying philosophy will be to significantly increase the numbers of disadvantaged students ready for college, he said. "Every student is capable of a college-ready curriculum."