Betting that it can boost college graduation rates if school districts, community colleges and local governments work together more closely, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has funded seven such collaborative efforts in cities across the country.
Thursday, Gates announced that it has provided $1.6 million in seed money to seven cities and colleges in Arizona, California, Florida, New York and Ohio that are already working together to streamline the services they offer to help underprivileged students earn a post-secondary credential. Gates gave $2.4 million more to the National League of Cities’ Institute for Youth, Education and Families  to help these localities further plan and implement their own projects.
Gates officials argue that a “coordinated effort to boost college graduation rates is increasingly critical to the long-term prosperity of our cities and our nation.” To illustrate the program’s potential impact, they cite a 2009 study by CEOs for Cities  stating that “if each of the nation’s 51 largest metropolitan areas improved the percentage of their populations with four-year degrees, the national [gross domestic product] would increase by $166 billion a year.”
Nisha Patel, a Gates program officer, said this funding effort has a different aim from some of the foundation’s other efforts. Last month, for instance, Gates and the Lumina Foundation for Education announced their funding of an effort to create a national, voluntary accountability system for community colleges . Also, last summer, Gates awarded grants to national policy organizations for efforts to identify why so many young Americans drop out  of college.
“This is not about a particular program, but rather about creating effective models of partnerships to increase completion in these communities,” she said. “Community colleges are key, of course; but we’re trying to get away from the usual suspects this time. There are roles for mayors and there are roles for K-12 to play.”
In nine months, Gates will select a few initiatives from the seven communities and fully fund the projects that they develop. Still, Patel insisted that Gates was interested in developing sustainable working relationships in all of the communities it initially selected and not just for those that might receive full funding down the road.
“Whether some of these receive full funding or not, we’re hoping to catalyze change within these communities,” she said. “We’ve encouraged them to bring on other philanthropic partners or find other ways for their efforts to eventually become sustainable. Working together is most important, though. People who get focused on the task at hand, easy get siloed. A K-12 instructor might just see their goal as getting a student to graduation and not getting them into college. Also, a college instructor might view their goal as getting that same student to graduation there and not a good job afterward. We need to get communities as a whole to look at the larger picture.”
The collaboration Patel talks about at the macro level has multiple meanings for those on the ground in the communities that have received grant money. In some of them, it simply means providing a better system of shared data to eye how students get off track.
Kimberly Wicoff, director of interagency planning at the San Francisco mayor’s office, said the city plans to use its grant money to track when and why students within the local K-12 and community college systems drop out.
“It’s all about getting good data,” she said. “If there’s something happening to students in our high schools that affects their ability to complete at City College [of San Francisco], then we need to get people at those institutions out of their silos and see what’s happening across the whole system. This’ll be the first chance we’ll have to do that, and maybe we’ll be able to do something different that helps more students graduate.”
Cross-sector efforts like this have run into legal roadblocks in the past, Wicoff said. For example, she noted that it has taken over a year to sort out Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act regulations to begin collecting data in the local school systems. Still, she believes that having a “clear target” and a “shared vision,” which this grant aims to provide, will allow the secondary and postsecondary systems to work together.
“The first barrier is creating a plan and getting the political will behind it,” she said. “The grant helps knock that down. Still, once we have a plan, we need to get all faculty to do things differently. The proof will be in the pudding. For instance, if we create data that show how students who miss three unexcused absences in the fall of their 8th grade year are ten times more likely to drop out, that’s empowering for instructors. They’ll buy into the data sharing.”
For other communities, collaboration between government, school districts and communities colleges can help bring already successful projects to scale.
Edythe Abdullah, president of Florida State College of Jacksonville’s downtown campus, said she hopes to bring together government and education leaders with local business officials to leverage all of the resources they offer to their maximum capacity. For example, the Jacksonville Commitment  program offers full scholarships for 150 academically qualified low-income students to attend nearby colleges. Abdullah said she would like to see this program expanded to fund even more students through this collaboration.
“We’ve been operating in silos for too long,” she said. “We often don’t connect the best ideas and make them systematic. This is about creating a system to connect underprivileged individuals to education and see them through. This is not just a drop in the bucket that should last five or ten years before we move on to another initiative.”
Ideally, Abdullah said these local projects should help not only increase the number of college graduates but also the number of those who take on middle-skill jobs .
“We are creating a society of haves and have-nots,” she said. “If we don’t remember that we need to train people for those middle-income careers, we’re going to have a very fragmented society with a lot of rich people and a lot of poor people.”
Today’s dour economic climate, some argue, is ideal for working across sectors.
“Five or ten years ago, we wouldn’t have even had these conversations,” Patel said. “As budgets are constrained, we need to take a look at how we can collaborate and save. There's nothing like an economic crisis that affects all of us to convince us that we’re all in this together.”