Gates Foundation Invests Half-Billion in Success of Community College Students

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by Ingrid Sturgis

Dr. Lenore Rodicio is vice provost for Miami Dade Community College and a managing project director for Completion by Design in the Florida cadre.

Dr. Lenore Rodicio is vice provost for Miami Dade Community College and a managing project director for Completion by Design in the Florida cadre.

If efforts by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to improve completion rates at community colleges prove successful, it could change the economic and educational fortunes of millions of low-income and minority students who attend those schools. If it fails, critics say, the foundation’s efforts could exacerbate the expanding economic divide in the United States, and damage the democratic process.

One thing is certain: The Gates Foundation is putting its money where its mouth is to the tune of spending nearly a half-billion dollars, according to a 2011 tax report, as part of a 20-year mission to fix higher education. The foundation is in year five of that mission, with a goal to double the number of low-income U.S. students who have completed a degree or credential at age 26 by 2020.

“We see this as a natural evolution,” says Daniel Greenstein, Gates Foundation’s director of education, Postsecondary Success Strategy. “The foundation has always been interested in student success.”

He said the university and college systems aren’t really equipped to help college students succeed, given that the majority of today’s enrollees are “nontraditional” students — low-income, part-time, first-generation college goers, commuting students who are more likely to work full time.

“Unless we graduate more of these students we call ‘the new majority,’ because they make up the majority of students today in the United States, we’re not going to be able to keep our country economically competitive,” says Greenstein. “The goal is to graduate more students with better degrees and at lower cost.”

An Obama Initiative

The foundation’s efforts dovetail with American Graduation Initiative, a plan started in 2009 by the Obama administration to invest in community colleges and help American workers get the skills and credentials they need to succeed. The administration’s stated goals: “To lead the world in college completion; support the expansion of state data systems to track student progress and performance-based financing for colleges.”

To that end, the Gates Foundation is investing $35 million over five years to boost community college graduation rates through its latest program called Completion by Design. It is a huge goal. Nearly half of all undergraduates — about 13 million students — attend community colleges, according to American Association of Community Colleges. Only 28 percent actually complete their education and get degrees within three years, according to the Department of Education.

The foundation’s focus on community colleges is a natural fit, officials there say. Higher education has always been a cause supported by the Gates family. Bill Gates’ mother, Mary, was a member of the University of Washington Board of Regents for 18 years. His father, William H. Gates Sr., served in that position until 2012. In 2002, the Gates Foundation donated $1 billion to the United Negro College Fund, and the UNCF received a $1.6 billion gift from the foundation in 2009, partly to manage minority students.

In addition to Completion by Design, which supports school reform efforts at a “cadre” of community colleges in Florida, North Carolina and Ohio, the foundation has pooled money with other philanthropies which have the same mission. Gates, as the largest foundation in the world, has a sprawling portfolio, spreading its money far and wide — making donations to everything from media groups to think tanks — that it has cut a swath so broad in the educational-reform movement that some say it colors the national debate on higher education reform and can skew the results. For example, it has the ear of the Obama administration, which has incorporated Gates Foundation money within its calculations for funding several educational grant programs.

Ten years ago, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation joined other philanthropic organizations with similar higher educational interests such as the Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust and the Lumina, Kresge, Greater Texas, Joyce, W. K. Kellogg and Annie E. Casey foundations to reform education.

Several years ago, the Gates Foundation became the largest funder for Achieving the Dream, according to William E. Trueheart, chief executive officer of the nonprofit dedicated to helping low-income students and students of color stay in school and earn a college certificate or degree. Achieving the Dream started with a 10-year, $75 million commitment from Lumina and developed a national community college reform network to help bring change. The nonprofit works with nearly 190 community colleges in 34 states and Washington, D.C., serving 4 million students from rural to large urban areas.

The Gates Foundation, Trueheart says, is a co-creator and generous funder of Achieving the Dream’s efforts to transform community colleges.

First, they listen

“[The Gates Foundation] came in, saw what we were doing and provided support in areas we identified as weaknesses in community colleges, such as developmental education, which is remedial education,” Trueheart says. “They invested a lot of money in developmental education based on what we found through our research on the ground in community colleges. They didn’t say, ‘This is what you should do,’ or ‘This is our idea.’”

Instead, Trueheart says the foundation accelerated work based on the nonprofit’s findings. Critics say the Gates Foundation is operating in a bubble in which only voices within its sphere of influence are heard, and the democratic process is turned on its head because of the large amounts of money being selectively distributed.

Anthony Cody, an educator, teacher trainer and blogger at Education Week, has been critical of the billions of dollars being poured into education reform in K–12, after he spent 24 years teaching in Oakland schools. He said he is wary of market-driven education reform being espoused by the Gates Foundation and other philanthropies. He says those who go along with the changes without considering who changes will actually benefit lack skepticism.

“What we are seeing in terms of philanthropy is a public sector starved of resources. [The] Gates Foundation is investing one or two billion a year,” he says.

It’s a small amount being paid for influence, given the overall $138 billion education budget.

However, he says, “They are very strategic in where to put money. They are putting it on the levers of influence.”

Cody says the foundation also is investing in thinktank operations that issue reports that influence legislators, and legislators use the findings to change laws that impact education, all without close examination by the public, he claims.

Patricia A. McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University in Washington, says that there are several troubling issues raised by the Gates Foundation’s involvement with higher education reform. They include the massive funding that creates governmental conflicts of interest and mutes the voices of educators and the public, the application of simplistic solutions to complex educational issues and the discounting of dissenting voices.

“Community colleges tend to be powerless,” says McGuire. “They don’t have the big constituencies. They are almost classic in being on the fringe, lacking in power and clout. It’s an easy population to pick off.”

Women at risk

McGuire says the data being used to make changes are based on the traditional full-time residential, 18-year-old college student who doesn’t transfer to another institution and graduates within six years. Today’s community college student tends to be mostly female, low-income, often single mothers.

“Low-income women of all ages and single mothers are at risk in this conversation,” she says, because the measures being used to evaluate success in college penalizes these students who often need more developmental education, tutoring, academic support and other services.

In addition, these students may attend multiple institutions, or may leave and then return to school, she says, and after graduation, this group tends to work in public-service jobs, rather than highly compensated positions.

“This movement is coming at a time when a majority of the population is becoming Hispanic and Black students, creating workers for technology factories of the country,” McGuire says.

The Gates Foundation has taken a more holistic approach to tackling change at the community college level after experiencing a contentious and disruptive battle to create small K –12 schools. According to the Gates Foundation, Completion by Design “collaborates with community college faculty and staff in a formal process of inquiry and design, aimed at systemic changes in policies, programs and practices that strengthen pathways to completion for students, without increasing costs, diluting educational quality, or undermining community colleges’ historical commitment to open access.”

Boot-camp experience

Dr. Lenore Rodicio, vice provost for Miami Dade Community College and a managing project director for Completion by Design in the Florida cadre, oversees Miami Dade’s eight campuses and 175,000 students. The majority are pursuing a two-year degree with an intention to get a bachelor’s degree. Miami is in the second year of implementation of Completion by Design. Rodicio said her faculty and staff analyzed barriers to student success and completion, using focus groups and surveys to determine areas of improvement.

“We are most definitely driving this process,” she says. “All along the way, we have been good about pushing back, saying this is not how this is going to work. The Gates Foundation has been fantastic about changing course.”

Previously, she says the colleges were looking at snapshots of student achievement. With Completion by Design, they are able to use data to inform the big picture.

For example, this fall, with more than 4,000 students registering at Miami, the college redesigned English courses so students who needed remedial courses were able to integrate them with higher-level courses. They also developed a boot camp, which received a state best practices award, to strengthen reading, writing and math. The boot camp is an intensive weeklong, four-hour daily course starting with a diagnostic test to pinpoint weaknesses. Students are retested at the end of the week. The faculty found that half the students tested up one level higher and that one-quarter tested out of developmental courses.

In addition, Rodicio says the college assigns a precollege adviser to high schools where they recruit, along with offering career development and financial aid workshops. Once at college, students are assigned an adviser until they complete 25 percent of their degree credits. Then they have access to an academic coach and mentor. As a result, she says, Miami Dade has seen an increase in retention. A recent change in legislation, however, restricts the use of remedial courses so students can progress more quickly. So the college has to revamp how such courses are offered and how to advise students about the necessity for such foundational courses. Miami Dade works with teams of faculty and staff to design the instruction. The college invested more than 1,000 hours of training for faculty, including adjuncts, on to the new strategies and interventions.

“We think we see the [Gates] grant as a catalyst to rethink how we are offering services to our students,” says Rodicio. “We’ve tried to avoid funding anything we have to sustain later on. We’ve developed the scaffolding.” That way, she says, the changes would be sustainable within the school’s budget and resources.

Dropouts with “As” and “Bs”

Similarly, Dr. Kathleen Cleary, associate provost for Student Success at Sinclair Community College and project director of Completion by Design for the Ohio cadre, has worked with Gates Foundation for more than four years. The three-college Ohio cadre is a large urban area with campuses in Dayton, North Canton and Elyria, with 40,000 students and a high percentage of low-income students. “We found through Completion by Design research that 40 percent of students drop out with an “A” or “B” average. Time is the enemy. The longer they stay in school, the most likely they are to drop out.”

Data which showed that students who needed to take more remedial classes were less likely to graduate made Cleary focus on finding innovative ways to help students become more college ready and able to progress through their education more quickly. The cadre adopted a modularized approach using a boot camp, an intense one-week refresher in developmental math for some students. The program also included a developmental English class, in place of remedial English, which allowed students to take both remedial and college level English courses at the same time. The changes were based on data that showed many students were getting stuck in remedial class, which slowed their progress through finishing college or achieving a credential.

“It opened up a conversation that what we were doing wasn’t working,” Cleary says. “We had to have a different approach.”

However, she adds, “We won’t really see real results for another four to six years. We are cautiously optimistic this is moving the needle. We can’t solve all the problems, but we can do a better job of referring students to those who can help. Money makes a difference. It’s a very complicated solution.”

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