What We Do

Postsecondary Success

Strategy Overview

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A physics lab at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, North Carolina, which offers nearly 300 degree and certificate programs.

our goal:

to ensure that all students who seek the opportunity are able to complete a high-quality, affordable postsecondary education that leads to a sustaining career.

The Challenge

At A Glance

A college education is the gateway to the American middle class, with college graduates earning as much as 65 percent more than those with only a high school education. But many who want to attend college cannot afford it.

Poor college completion rates in the U.S. hurt the national economy. More than 40 percent of college students drop out before finishing or withdraw for a period of time.

The cost of higher education continues to rise faster than any other cost in the United States, including healthcare, while state funding for student financial aid has steadily decreased.

The foundation works with educators, researchers, technologists, foundations, policymakers, and other partners to help public colleges and universities affordably and efficiently guide more low-income students to degree completion.

Our Postsecondary Success strategy is led by Daniel Greenstein, director, and is part of the foundation’s United States Division.

Public higher education in the United States is at a watershed moment. As education costs rise and colleges and universities face growing financial pressures, the education gap is widening and public student financial aid systems are getting stretched to the limit—all of this at a time when our economy needs more college-educated workers than ever before.

Left unabated, these trends will leave the U.S. economy without the skilled workforce it needs to remain competitive and will likely increase the education gap between those from low-income backgrounds and the rest of the population. Given the role that higher education has historically played as an engine of social mobility and economic growth, the political and social implications for our nation, and particularly for lower-income people, are profound and unacceptable. They are also avoidable.

The Opportunity

Research and practical experimentation at colleges and universities across the country are revealing promising solutions that could enable colleges and universities to increase graduation rates while maintaining or reducing costs and ensuring that all students receive a high-quality educational experience that is tailored to their needs, academic abilities, and career or employment goals.

These solutions include sophisticated technology-enabled teaching and student advising tools, as well as enterprise-wide systems that gather and analyze data to help institutions improve their performance and student outcomes. Also vitally important is close alignment between high school graduation requirements and college entry standards.

Our Strategy

An engineering class at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, New York.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is committed to ensuring that all students have the opportunity to receive a high-quality education. We have two programs that work in concert toward this goal: College-Ready Education, which aims to ensure that all students graduate from high school prepared to succeed in college and in a career; and Postsecondary Success, whose goal is to dramatically increase the number of young people who obtain a postsecondary degree or certificate with labor-market value. Areas of intersection include practical approaches and policy strategies to better align K-12 standards—including the Common Core State Standards—with higher-education standards.

Our Postsecondary Success strategy seeks to increase low-income students’ college completion rates through innovations that can improve the productivity and performance of U.S. universities and colleges and ensure that all students have access to a high-quality, highly personalized education.

Our investments seek to accelerate efforts already under way in higher education and to support the enormous talent, creativity, and energy being applied to improving student completion rates and lowering costs while raising the quality of the U.S. postsecondary education system.

How We Work

Our primary approach is to play a catalytic role—to support the development of solutions that are unlikely to be generated by institutions working alone and that can trigger change on a broader scale. In each case, we work with our partners to build on the best of practitioner knowledge, available research, and analogous experiences in related sectors. We also rigorously evaluate these solutions in real-world settings, placing as much importance on effective implementation as on student outcomes.

Who We Work With

Our partners include highly innovative colleges and universities that are engaged in bold, systematic reform efforts. Their efforts allow us to understand how new tools and approaches can be integrated effectively at the institutional level, and they help us understand the interplay between institutional practice and state and national education policies and regulations. Some of our collaborators are wholly new entities launched in the past few years that are experimenting with groundbreaking new paradigms in higher education.

Areas of Focus

Our investments aim to help U.S. higher education become more personalized, flexible, clear, and affordable. We are also working with institutions across the country that are committed to innovation and have the potential to become exemplars for other institutions that share their goals.

Personalized

The “typical” higher education student has changed. Nearly three out of four postsecondary students today are not enrolled in a full-time, four-year degree program. They are balancing jobs, family, and other priorities as they work to finish their studies. Because students learn best when education is targeted to their needs and goals, we are exploring how to use technology to help colleges and universities educate students more effectively, measure student understanding in real time, and respond to students’ needs. By integrating technology into online and hybrid courses and into student advising, colleges can support more students at a lower cost and with better learning outcomes.

Flexible

Foothill College in California’s Silicon Valley offers an innovative self-paced math program for students who need remedial instruction.

We work with our partners to help students transition easily between high school and college, between colleges, and out of college into a sustainable career. These efforts include initiatives to align high school graduation and college-entry standards, improve placement testing, and develop remedial programs that help students quickly identify and close gaps in their high school education. We also support efforts to make course credits more easily transferable between colleges.

Clear

We invest in better data collection about student achievement and institutional performance, which can help inform students’ college choices, provide prospective employers with measures of student attainment and skills, and help institutions and policymakers improve outcomes and manage costs. Our efforts in this area include support for the development of a national, student-level information system for reporting student outcomes.

Affordable

We are exploring new educational models that can deliver a high-quality, personalized education to more people at the same and at lower cost. We also support policies that focus financial aid programs on the neediest students and ensure that a postsecondary degree is affordable to everyone.

Institutional Partnerships

We are working with institutions in key segments of higher education that are transforming their educational and business models to meet the needs of low-income and first-generation college students. We support their efforts with research and evaluation tools, help them share what they are learning, and connect them with other institutions that share their goals.

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