WASHINGTON -- Following the lead of President Obama, who stressed the importance of college graduation rates in his first address to Congress earlier this year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on Tuesday announced more than $6.4 million in grants to national policy organizations for efforts to identify why so many young Americans drop out of college.
“Today, a two-year or four-year college degree or certificate is a prerequisite for economic success,” Hilary Pennington, director of education, postsecondary success and special initiatives for the Gates Foundation, said to an audience of higher education professionals gathered at the Library of Congress here. Yet while tangible economic incentives to finish college are evident, she said, completion rates have been stagnant since the 1970s. While the United States once led the world in terms of postsecondary completion rates, it now ranks 10th.
That is why, Pennington said, the Gates Foundation is expanding its efforts in areas of high school completion and college preparation to study and improve the ways colleges and policy makers can help students -- especially low-income, African American, Hispanic and nontraditional students -- complete degrees (four-year and otherwise).
The grants  announced Tuesday include $1.25 million for the American Enterprise Institute; $800,000 for the Center for American Progress; $1.5 million for the Center for Law and Social Policy; $675,000 for the College Board; $600,000 for Excelencia in Education; and $1.58 million for the Institute for Higher Education Policy. Initiatives that will be funded through the grants focus on developing policy proposals, collecting usable data, and promoting innovation on an institutional level.
“Students need to be ready for college but colleges have to be ready for students,” Kevin Carey, policy director for Education Sector and moderator of Tuesday’s panel discussion, said, asking the national policy organization officials on the panel what needs to be done to shift the responsibility a little more evenly from students to institutions.
One issue is with funding, panel members said. This country invests 50 times more money in initiatives aimed at giving students access to college than it does in efforts designed to ensure that they succeed once there, said Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy. That is a major “stumbling block” in terms of policy, she said, mentioning later an example of one state -- Oklahoma -- that has successfully provided incentives for college completion rates by tying them to state funding. According to a February report  by the Midwestern Higher Education Compact, performance funding in Oklahoma -- focused on student retention, graduation, and degree completion -- has averaged $2.2 million per year.
But a one-size-fits-all model will not address the widely varying needs of colleges, the panelists emphasized. Mark Schneider, vice president of the American Institutes for Research and visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, cited a report released by AEI last week showing that even among “competitive” colleges, graduation rates range from just over 20 percent to more than 70 percent.
Gathering more thorough information about individual colleges would help identify what’s working and what’s not, Schneider said, adding that he supports the notion of developing a federal database of student records to allow policymakers to track their progress across institutions -- a debate that has raged for years . But, he said, “surprise, surprise, there are political problems” involved in national data collection, and the current method of collection -- the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System -- leaves out information that could be useful for evaluating colleges, including figures that could encourage more nontraditional students to pursue and finish degrees (like how much and often the college discounts tuition for low-income applicants).
It’s also important, though, that policy makers avoid just “talking to each other,” Schneider said. A major factor in a successful degree completion initiative would have to be the dissemination of information to colleges and applicants.
For Sarita Brown, president of Excelencia in Education -- which aims to accelerate Latino students' success in higher education -- that means bringing to low-income and minority students the kind of “conversations that regularly go on at middle-class breakfast tables.”
Schneider agreed, suggesting college applicants who traditionally miss out on adequate college counseling should have access to information not just about which institutions they are qualified to attend, but also the relative statistics for each -- especially each college’s graduation rates for minority populations. That means getting information into “the hands of people who really matter” -- students, parents and guidance counselors.
“The question comes up, ‘If we only knew what works,’ ” said Tom Rudin, senior vice president for advocacy, government relations and development for the College Board. “Well we do know what works.”
Testing workable ideas on real campuses -- not just talking “from 30,000 feet” as Brown warned against -- and taking a more one-on-one approach with students have proven successful in the past, he said, and should be emphasized in the future. There are “programs all over the place” that serve as positive role models in that regard -- the "Call Me MISTER"  initiative at Clemson University is one.
But underlying any new initiative for an increase in college graduation rates has to be a recognition that the landscape of students and the institutions they choose is changing, Duke-Benfield said. Higher education is “largely in denial” about the demographic shift in college attendees toward more nontraditional students, she said, and a major focus in the efforts funded by the Gates grants should be on ways to reach and support today’s students.
Gates officials promised that they would be responding to many of those suggestions as they announce more grants in the coming weeks and months.