Gates Foundation investing in college completion

The initiative by Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, will seek applications from nine target states.
The initiative by Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, will seek applications from nine target states. (Fabrice Coffrini/agence-france Presse Via Getty Images)
By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 4, 2010

On the eve of the first-ever White House Summit on Community Colleges, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on Monday will announce a $34.8 million, five-year commitment to raise stagnant completion rates in the nation's two-year public institutions.

Lagging completion rates in two-year colleges are seen as a major impediment to meeting the Obama administration's goal of regaining the world lead in college degrees by 2020. Barely one student in five completes community college with an associate degree or certificate, according to federal data. An additional share of students successfully transfers to four-year institutions.

The White House Summit will convene Tuesday, with second lady Jill Biden - an instructor at Northern Virginia Community College - leading a discussion of how two-year colleges can contribute to the national graduation goal.

The Gates initiative, Completion By Design, will seek applications from groups of community colleges in nine target states: Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, New York, North Carolina, Texas and Washington. As many as five proposals will be funded, based on their prospects for success.

"What we're hoping is that colleges will step back and analyze how many students they are losing, and why," said Hilary Pennington, director of education, postsecondary success at the Gates Foundation, based in Seattle.

Two-fifths of Americans hold at least an associate degree. The world lead belongs to Canada, with a 56 percent college completion rate. Obama's American Graduation Initiative has a goal of an additional 5 million degrees and certificates over 10 years.

Community colleges serve 12 million students. They lag far behind four-year colleges in completion, although many students choose to transfer rather than finish a certificate or degree. In Virginia's community college system, for example, 18 percent of students complete degrees or certificates, and an additional 20 percent transfer to four-year schools, for an overall success rate of 38 percent.

Community college presidents cite several problems.

One is college readiness. "Minimum high school graduation requirements don't match up to what community colleges expect of their students," said Robert G. Templin Jr., president of Northern Virginia Community College, which has been cited as a national leader in academic innovation.

Another is remediation. Community colleges tend to sort students with broad placement tests that don't specify areas of academic weakness. Students waste time repeating "significant chunks of high school work, whether or not that's what they need to learn," Templin said.

A third issue is the associate degree itself, long undervalued by American society. Many community college students do not seek it, planning instead to transfer out, and then wind up with no degree at all.

"The associate degree cannot be seen simply as a stepping stone, but rather as a milestone," said DeRionne Pollard, president of Montgomery College in Maryland.

Pennington believes too many community colleges lack the clear path of four-year institutions. Two-year colleges try to offer so many services to so many students that those seeking a degree "get lost at multiple points along the way," she said.

The Gates program will look for models that enroll students "in a program of study, rather than individual courses," she said.

Some fixes may be simple, such as offering courses at more convenient times or easing the gridlock at registration desks. Colleges might look for ways to combine remediation with college-level work, so students can progress toward a degree while catching up.

The initiative sets no specific goal for completion, but Pennington said the success rate for students seeking a degree or credential "should be well above 50 percent."

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