The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced Monday  that it is giving $12 million to four cities over the next three years to boost college completion rates by, among other efforts, smoothing the alignment between their high schools and community colleges.
New York City, San Francisco, Mesa, Ariz. and Riverside, Calif. were selected via a competitive grant process and will each receive $3 million for individualized plans to meet self-selected college completion benchmarks. The four-city project aims to gather “mayors and municipal leaders, K-12 superintendents and community colleges” at the same table to discuss how they can work together toward a common goal.
The four cities selected for the project have plenty of room for improvement. The latest three-year associate degree graduation rate for the City University of New York (CUNY) is the lowest of the four cities at 10 percent. The City College of San Francisco has the best graduation rate at 27 percent. In between the two big city institutions, Mesa Community College’s graduation rate is 11 percent and Riverside College’s is 22 percent.
The goals for the grant-winning cities and their institutions are ambitious. CUNY hopes to boost its associate degree completion rate to 25 percent by 2020. City College of San Francisco wants to bring its completion rate to 47 percent in the same amount of time. Officials in Mesa aim to double the graduation rates of “low-income adults” in the city of about 477,000 from 8 percent to 16 percent in the next decade. By contrast, Riverside officials set a much more modest goal: trying to increase degree completion rates for all of its residents from 14 to 20 percent by 2013.
The efforts being put into place to achieve these goals in these four cities are somewhat similar. New York and San Francisco have plans to “align academic standards and curriculum across high schools” and their community colleges. Both cities also cite the desire to improve “academic advisement and counseling.” Leaders from these cities said the grants would help their various public entities work better together. (Also on Monday, CUNY and IBM announced plans to open a new school that combines high school with two years of community college education, leading to an associate degree, the Associated Press  reported.)
“It’s not just about public-private partnerships now,” said Gavin Newsom, mayor of San Francisco and the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor of California in the upcoming election. “It’s about public-public partnerships. … There’s nothing more important than encouraging a college-going culture.”
City College of San Francisco and Riverside College, however, will likely need more than a Gates grant to make a lasting impact on their lowly graduation rates, a campaigning Newsom noted, hinting at the ongoing state budget crisis that has left many students stranded  without a community college. He added that it was his hope that elected officials in his state would pay attention to these Gates-funded projects and follow suit by increasing state funding for higher education, giving other colleges in the state the ability to pay for completion efforts of their own.
“We’re not valuing education,” Newsom said of California. “We talk about it, but we’re not valuing it. … This [grant] is a help, and this aligns our priorities.”
Officials from Mesa and Riverside also touted the efforts that they would fund as a result of the Gates grants. The two cities highlighted programs such as “implementing an early assessment and accelerated college-prep strategy” and improving public awareness of the degree offerings at their institutions.
Recently, some community college officials have criticized the Gates Foundation , among other philanthropic foundations, for often only giving grants to institutions in urban areas, where completion-improving measures are not likely to scale down to the many rural community colleges around the country. Though acknowledging the foundation’s tendency to give to larger institutions, Gates officials defended the practice, especially in light of Monday’s grant announcement.
“We spend a lot of time looking at where low-income students go to college and where a majority of community colleges are located,” said Hilary Pennington, director of the foundation’s Education, Postsecondary Success and Special Initiatives Program. “We have started with relatively larger places … but we deeply understand many different types of cities.”
Pennington added that Gates’ partner in monitoring this grant, the National League of Cities, would help spread the word on how to scale whatever successes these grants produce to institutions of different sizes and located in other areas of the country.