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Melinda French Gates - A Forum on Education in America

November 11, 2008
Prepared remarks by Melinda French Gates, co-chair and trustee

Editor's note: Read Bill Gates' comments at the Forum on Education, which followed Melinda French Gates' remarks.

It was a pleasure for Bill and for me to host you last night at our home, and we’re delighted to see you again this morning. We’re eager to talk with you about our work in education, because no matter how sound our strategy may be—and we are counting on your candid opinion—this work will not succeed without your support and your partnership.

We are meeting one week after an historic presidential election. President-elect Obama campaigned on the promise of change. He has expressed a strong commitment to education, and we are optimistic about the role an Obama administration will play over the next four years in supporting change in our schools.

Unfortunately, the urgent needs of our schools are competing for attention with many other important issues. As we all know, we’ve entered a financial crisis that rightly occupies the attention and concern of the country. But it should not make us forget the people whose lives are difficult even in the best of times. Because today, America’s long history of upward mobility is in danger.

Historically in America, there have been two paths out of poverty. In the decades after World War II, good wages for factory workers offered an upward path for people who were born poor and wanted to do better than their parents. You could graduate from high school at the top or your class, the bottom of your class, or not at all; if you showed up smart, eager, and ready to work, you could earn a wage that would let you support a family.

That way out is ending. The median wage for workers with no college is now close to the poverty line for a family of four. But that doesn’t really capture the problem. It’s not just that wages are shrinking; the jobs are vanishing.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that through 2014, more than half of all new jobs will require more than a high school degree. And four years from now, the United States will have 3 million more jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree and not enough college graduates to fill them.

That leaves only one path out of poverty: education—a college education. America has long known about the value of a college education–but a fair-minded critic might say: “You don’t know the half of it! You’re working to get more students into college; you should also be doing a lot more to get them through college.”

For the last 40 years, the U.S. has been encouraging enrollment and access–with federal aid like Pell Grants and Guaranteed Student Loans. That’s important, and it has helped. More young people enrolled in college this year than ever before.

But the payoff doesn’t come with enrolling in college; the payoff comes when a student gets a postsecondary degree that helps them get a job with a family wage – and that’s not happening nearly enough. The college completion rate in America has been flat since the 1970s. We were once first in the world in postsecondary completion rates, we now rank tenth. That’s a danger for the nation’s economy, and it’s a tragedy for our citizens.

This is the cause that is going to define our foundation’s new work in postsecondary education: not just college enrollment, but college completion.

We’re going to explore ways to involve business, students, colleges, nonprofits, and governments in turning the current incentive structure on its head—and creating big rewards for completing a postsecondary degree.

Unfortunately, the demands of completing a postsecondary degree put exceptional burdens on even the most capable low-income students. Poor students cannot turn to their parents for help with tuition or financial support.

But most poor students face a bigger obstacle than money. To get a good postsecondary degree, students need to attend a high school that prepares them for college. Yet, despite the hard work of great reformers—many in this room— America’s high schools today are more a reflection of inequity than a remedy for it.

The exceptions are truly extraordinary. Bill and I took a trip last month to Texas where we visited a number of schools in the Rio Grande Valley and Houston, and I will never forget meeting Cesar, an assistant principal at Lee High School in Houston. Cesar told a very personal story about a student who showed up to school as a freshman and would not say a word, not even his name. He was a gang member, and was severely behind academically. Cesar got very involved with the boy and worked with him for years.

Now, the former gang member is a senior, on course to graduate, and planning to go to college. As Cesar came to this part of the story, he stopped, started shaking, and just broke down crying. He knew the difference he had made in that man’s life.

Completing high school ready for college is a key transition point in the path out of poverty. A second transition is earning a post-credential with value in the workplace. If young people fail to make the first transition, it’s unlikely they will make the second. If they fail to make the second, it’s likely they will be poor.

Helping millions of low-income Americans navigate these two transitions is the core of our work in the United States. Bill will talk with you today about our strategies to help students graduate from high school ready for college, and I will talk about our new focus on college completion.

We both will cite a dominant feature of both programs–and that is to build a culture of evidence and an overriding commitment to follow the evidence wherever it leads. Evidence gives you an argument for action. When you have it, you know what works and what doesn’t. When you don’t have it, you have no path to improvement.

Where there is data, we will act on it. Where there is none, we will gather it–and we will help build the systems that can store it and disseminate it.

We know the country spends well over 100 billion dollars a year on student aid. But we really don’t know what we’re getting for our money. We’re certainly not getting great college graduation rates. We have to do better. At a time of limited resources, it has never been more important to get the highest possible return on this investment—both for students and for the country.

Our goal, with your help, is to double the number of low-income students who earn postsecondary degrees or credentials that let them earn a living wage.

Earlier this year, I had a chance to sit down and talk with a young woman at a public high school in South Los Angeles. She told me she was taking a course to learn how to be manicurist in a salon. That’s a fine choice—if it’s a real choice. But for her, it wasn’t. She was locked in a course of studies that—even if she aced it—would not prepare her to go to college.

I had a look at the curriculum. One lesson involved reading the back of a can of soup in a grocery store and knowing what the contents are. That was her math class.

I haven’t talked to that young woman since then. I don’t know what she’s doing now. But I know what’s likely ahead for her. She will graduate from high school without ever knowing how far behind she is. She may get hired as a manicurist if a job’s available. If not, she will likely get a low-wage job at a fast-food restaurant or at a retail store. But after a while, she may very well say: “This is nowhere; I want to be a nurse and I’m going back to school.”

She will keep her job, because she will need the income, and she will enroll at a community college part-time. She’ll take a placement test for the nursing program, but she’ll score below the cut-off, so she’ll be sent to remedial math and English. It may take her two or even three semesters to be eligible for courses that will count towards her nursing degree. That means that even if she’s doing great, she’s basically still in high school—but paying college tuition.

Let’s say she makes it through remediation and moves into courses that start counting towards her degree. She may find that some of the required courses aren’t offered at a time she can take them, or even offered that semester at all. It may take her five years to get a two-year degree.

Most likely though, she won’t get a degree at all. She’ll get frustrated and quit. She’ll leave not with a diploma, but with a book of loan payment coupons. And her job prospects won’t be any better than they were before.

Multiply this by millions and we begin to get the picture. If we’re going to make any dent on poverty in America, we have to help more students get a postsecondary degree.

Here is how we’re going to get started:

First, we’re going to explore how the huge amount of financial aid in this country could be used as an incentive to encourage completion. This will include working with partners to develop changes in tuition and government funding so the college gets less money at the front end, just for enrolling a student, and more at the back end, after that student receives a diploma or credential.

Second, we will explore how performance-based scholarships can provide greater financial incentive to finish school. We have evidence from a pilot study in Louisiana that giving students scholarships if they increase their course load to full-time dramatically increases completion rates. We will be funding a demonstration of performance-based scholarships over the next three years in as many as eight states and 15 postsecondary institutions.

Third, we will help promote partnerships between colleges and local employers, so students know that a job is waiting if they complete the degree. This will make the courses economic assets to the students, and not obstacles. At the same time, we will be working to make sure students have more information about how to use postsecondary study to get the job they want.

Lastly, we will push for improvements that accelerate academic catch-up for students who are behind. Only one-third of all students enrolled in remedial education ever pass the exam and go on to earn college credits. One-third! The rest get bogged down in remediation and quit.

When I was a manager at Microsoft, we were experiencing dramatic growth and some employees would suddenly face demands that were beyond their skills. As a manager, I could narrowly define the skill they needed and customize a plan to help them learn it. But in colleges, the typical approach now to remediating our students is to re-teach them all or most of their prior courses. It’s one of the most costly parts of educational system, and a big contributor to our drop-out crisis. What if instead we could give them an assessment, and tell them: “You need to know three concepts. I’m going to give you a short, focused program to learn them.” It could make a world of difference.

Ultimately, here’s what I hope will happen. Imagine the young woman I met in Los Angeles enrolls in a college nursing program. But this time, the college accesses her academic records, with her permission. They learn what she did well and not so well. They give her a diagnostic test, customized to her academic profile and her intended program of studies. The diagnostic test pinpoints the gaps she needs to fill for her specific program. They narrow it down to the essentials, and offer her the remediation at a focused, accelerated rate.

At the same time, she starts immediately with nursing courses—offered in the right sequence, at convenient times. If she misses a class, she can see the lecture on DVD—given by a nationally known teacher. She can download course materials, prepared by master educators. The amount of her school debt is reduced for every semester she stays in school, to give her an added incentive to keep going. And the college collects proportionately more money for each semester she completes, so it has an incentive to keep her on track.

While she’s still in school, she has a paid nursing internship arranged with a local hospital. When she graduates, the hospital offers her a full-time job, with benefits, at a starting salary of $40,000.

These are things we can do in this country, if we focus on it. But we need to put big incentives on the side of completion: heighten the payoff for students, schools, and employers—and keep knocking down the obstacles, financial, scheduling, and logistics.

Our foundation has a vision of a thriving postsecondary market of community colleges, four-year colleges, online options, and for-profit institutions that would compete for students on the basis of price, value, and convenience–with a premium paid when a student completes a degree that means something in the workplace.

In the next several years, our work will focus on two-year colleges. These are the schools that enroll the majority of low-income students. Most community colleges have open admission, low tuition rates, and with 1,200 of them around the country, most people live near one. Community colleges have untapped potential for getting students the credentials they need to earn a living wage.

We will take this cause to business leaders, labor leaders, civil rights leaders, and do everything we can to unify these voices in a call for change. And we’ll keep coming back, again and again, to call for more.

No country has the resources to guarantee a livelihood for people who aren’t willing to work hard. But nothing is more damaging to a country than to have millions of young people with no opportunities. In any society, there will always be some who perform well and others who don’t. But in a strong society, those differences are determined by people’s talent and energy and not by the income of their parents.

That’s why we’re committed to this work—we know of no better way to expand opportunity and make the future brighter for millions of Americans.

Thank you.

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