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Melinda French Gates: Raising the Bar on College Completion

An excerpt from her keynote address to the American Association of Community Colleges.

April 20, 2010
Prepared remarks by Melinda French Gates, Co-chair and Trustee

Thank you for your kind introduction, Dr. Spilde. And thank you all for a very warm welcome.

It is a special honor to speak to this association. Bill and I started learning about community colleges in earnest a few years ago, and it was immediately obvious that you don’t get the credit you deserve. One of the best-kept secrets in American public life is that you teach almost half of all college students—and you do it on a shoestring. For millions of young adults, you provide the only realistic opportunity for a better life.

I am here today to thank you on behalf of the Gates Foundation. Since we got involved in postsecondary education, we have been fortunate to have the benefit of your experience.

Now, we are embarking on a strategy to help twice as many students earn a postsecondary degree, and we need your help again. If you take the lead, we are very optimistic about what we can accomplish together.

Our mission at the Gates Foundation is to help all people have the opportunity to live a healthy and productive life. In the United States, we started by working on an issue that is still a passion for Bill and me: college readiness. In 2006, Warren Buffett’s amazing gift gave us the ability to effectively double our giving, and we began to ask, What else? What could we do to extend opportunity to more people?

We spent a year considering dozens of possible investments, and our research painted a stark picture. The pathway to opportunity now runs from high school graduation, through college enrollment, and finally to college completion.

Our college readiness investments were explicitly targeting high school graduation and college enrollment, but not college completion. So we decided to build on them with investments in postsecondary education.

We didn’t start with community colleges, but it’s where we ended up.

My favorite part of this work is meeting community college students. Bill and I are always moved by how much they value education. They encounter countless barriers and obstacles, but they keep struggling to overcome them, because they understand how important a college degree is for a successful future.

Last year, we met a young man named Cornell at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, North Carolina. We asked him to describe his typical day. He clocks into work at 11 p.m. When he gets off at 7 the next morning, he sleeps for an hour. In his car. Then he goes to class until 2 o’clock. “After that,” Cornell said, “I just crash.”

One of his classmates, a single mom named Paris, joked that her one-year-old son thinks her chemistry book is a toy. And no matter how many times she explains it to him, he simply won’t respect the sanctity of homework time. But Cornell and Paris keep working toward their degrees—they cope with the sleeplessness and the guilt and the unrelenting pressure—because they are focused on improving their lives.

Central Piedmont is about an hour away from Greensboro, North Carolina. Fifty years ago, four African-American students at a segregated college in Greensboro started a movement by sitting down at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. The stools were for white customers only. Black customers were allowed to eat, but they had to stand up. Three days after the first sit-in, 300 students protested in front of Woolworth’s. Those heroes were demanding much more than just the right to sit and eat; they were demanding equal access to the American Dream.

Now, more than 200,000 African-American students attend 58 community colleges in North Carolina. They are pursuing the same dream their grandparents sat in for.

Community colleges in every state in the union have written their own stories of equal access—not just for African Americans, but for all Americans who have been denied the opportunity they have a right to.

There are now more than 1,000 community colleges, which is one of the main reasons why the United States has some of the highest college enrollment rates in the world.

But the American Dream is more than access to college. It is also the better future that is supposed to come with access. A reliable income. A rewarding career. A nice home, in a safe neighborhood, where parents can raise a happy family.

The evidence is clear on this point. Students need to earn a certificate or a degree to achieve these goals. According to every conceivable measure—employment rates, wage premiums, job market forecasts, you name it—the line between the haves and the have-nots runs right through your institutions. Students who go on to earn a degree will be able to seize a set of opportunities that will remain out of reach for students who don’t.

The problem is that the latter group, the have-nots, is larger than the former group. Completion rates at community colleges are somewhere around 25 percent. I know the exact figure is controversial. Community colleges are unusually complex, and it is hard to collect solid data. But we should be able to agree that the 25 percent figure is in the right ballpark. The reality is: More than half of community college students never earn a degree.

There are many good reasons for low completion rates. A few students never plan to graduate in the first place. Many more drop out because they’re not prepared for college-level work. Others have to drop out because life intervenes: Sometimes, it proves to be impossible to juggle school, work, and family. Often, they re-enroll, but then life intervenes again.

Regardless of the reasons, we have to accept the fact that completion rates are far too low, because that’s the first step toward the goal of raising them.

Community colleges led the way on college access. Now it is time to lead the way on college completion.

I understand that what I am proposing would be extremely difficult under the best circumstances. And these are hardly the best circumstances. You face historic funding cuts and historic increases in enrollment.

More students, less money: For community colleges, this represents a crisis.

In a crisis, you can either keep doing what you’ve been doing, or you can change. In this case, if you stay on the same path, you will gradually find yourself able to meet fewer and fewer of your students’ needs. But if you change—if you innovate—you can teach your students in new ways that yield dramatically better results for a fraction of the cost.

I want to be clear that innovation doesn’t always involve a new technology. Sometimes, it’s just a smart idea that comes from looking at an old problem from a new angle. But no matter what form it takes, innovation can change the calculus of intractable problems—and make them tractable.

The area where the need for innovation is most urgent is remedial education.  Our research indicates that improving remediation is the single most important thing community colleges can do to increase the number of students who graduate.

I understand that some of you don’t consider developmental education to be a core part of your job description. And it may be true that high school is supposed to prepare students for college. But while some of you say that high schools should live up to their end of the bargain, high schools answer that they meet the standards that have been set for them. In the meantime, about 60 percent of incoming community college students test into at least one remedial class.

The problem is that there’s a gap between high schools’ standards and colleges’ expectations. As a result, millions of students are falling through a giant crack in our public education system.

The Gates Foundation is working on the readiness problem at the high school level. And we’re seeing progress, especially the fact that 48 states have agreed to put common core standards in place. The goal is to make sure that all high school students graduate having taken the classes that prepare them for college.

That’s a step in the right direction, but it won’t fix the problem right away. For the foreseeable future, millions of unprepared students will continue to enroll in community colleges.

Yet developmental education is treated as an afterthought at many community colleges. It’s not that you don’t spend money on it. Remediation represents a huge investment on the part of community colleges. You devote more than $2 billion a year to it. And yet it is the stage at which the most students drop out.

Why?

Imagine you’re 18 years old, with high school diploma in hand. You’re optimistic about the future. You decide to go to college. You get a job, determined to pay your tuition while meeting all the other responsibilities that come with being an adult.

But according to your placement exam, you don’t have the skills you need to do college-level math, so you’re sent to a remedial class. Right away, your dreams of going to college are deferred, because technically you’re not in college. You’re paying college tuition, but you’re not earning college credits.

You failed the test because you’re shaky on a couple of key concepts, but the class doesn’t zero in on those concepts. Instead, it starts from the beginning of algebra again—and it covers all the material you already know. A few months and a few thousand dollars into learning very little that’s new and making no progress on your degree, you might start to wonder if your college dreams make any sense.

That is a common experience. If you start in a remedial class, the odds are that you will never finish a credit-bearing course in that subject. That is a pitiful return on investment.

The fact that we lose the majority of students who enroll in a remedial course amounts to a default on our promise of access for everyone. What kind of access is it when we send half the students into classes we know they probably won’t finish?

But innovation can help you avert this crisis. It can help you teach more students, more effectively—for less money.

There are dozens of proven examples of innovation in remedial education. El Paso Community College is coordinating with local high schools to make sure students making the transition to college know what’s expected. El Paso’s students take the college placement test while they’re still in high school, and they can take a summer course at the college if they don’t pass the first time.

Mountain Empire Community College in Virginia has designed new lesson plans and textbooks geared toward helping students get through the remedial phase much faster. Students in these fast track courses at MECC review arithmetic in a single week during the summer, and algebra in just two weeks.

Here in Washington state, a program called I-Best lets students do college-level work while they are still taking basic skills classes, instead of having to pass all their remedial classes first.  In pilot studies, students in I-Best were four times more likely to graduate than their peers.

Some colleges are doing very innovative work in remediation with computer-based learning. The National Center for Academic Transformation was one of the first groups to experiment with technology in the classroom, starting about 10 years ago. N-CAT helps colleges redesign large lecture courses using technology-based approaches, especially educational software that stresses active learning. As one professor put it, “Students learn math by doing math, not by listening to someone talk about doing math.”

The redesigned courses also allow students to move from one module to the next by demonstrating mastery of the material, instead of by accumulating credit hours. Thirty colleges worked with N-CAT to redesign courses, and they spent less to get more. The cost of the redesigned courses was almost 40 percent lower, and course completion rates were 50 percent higher.

Educational technology also helps students beyond the remedial stage. Students I’ve talked to are ebullient about online learning. They tell me they really appreciate being able to do their work whenever and wherever it’s convenient, whether that’s at home, in a computer lab on campus, at the public library, or at the coffee shop around the corner.

These examples are reasons to be optimistic. Literally thousands of you are devising creative solutions to the problems you face on your campuses. But the innovations are scattered, they haven’t been replicated, and as a result their impact is diffuse.

The task ahead of you is to innovate at the necessary scale, so that your innovations have an impact on the entire community college system of more than 1,000 institutions and 6 million students.

We think the Gates Foundation can help with that. Our big bet is that we can invest strategically to make it much easier for you to reform remediation. The foundation will spend $100 million to work with dozens of partners to develop groundbreaking models for developmental education.

But it’s not enough to develop new models. You also have to spread them. That’s why we are also committed to helping community colleges work with each other to share ideas—to make it easier for you to adapt successful programs like I-BEST and N-CAT’s course redesigns. We’re excited to build on our relationship with the AACC, networks of community colleges like the Achieving the Dream Network, and state governments, because we believe that linking community colleges together is the best way to drive innovation at scale.

Your role is to make sure the best ideas in your field benefit your students in the classroom. You must translate what you learn into a higher completion rate at your college.

To that end, I urge you to calculate your graduation rate. Find out how many entering students plan to graduate, track them, and share the results. Then we can all be clear about where we are and where we need to go.

And I urge you to join networks of community colleges so that you can confront your common challenges together. You can do it on your own—many of you have been—but it’s difficult and expensive and time-consuming to reinvent the wheel 1,000 times.

On the other hand, if you work with partners, your combined insights will generate a positive feedback loop. Group innovation has many advantages. A group of colleges can draw on exponentially more expertise at the research and development phase, and it can spread good ideas much faster in the implementation phase.

We are confident that, working together, we can reach the goal of doubling the number of low-income young adults with a college certificate or degree.

Community colleges are an indispensible American institution. Almost two centuries ago, Thomas Jefferson dreamed of a system of district colleges that, he said, “place every father within a day’s ride of a college where he may dispose of his son.” You have finally made Jefferson’s dream come true, and you’ve done him one better. You provide access for mothers and daughters as well as fathers and sons. You provide access for students of all backgrounds. You provide access for everyone.

Cornell, Paris, and the other students we’ve met are grateful for the opportunity you provide. But we owe them even more. They put everything on the line for a better life. Their tenacious desire to succeed is the reason Bill and I—and all of you—do this work.

We owe them the same tenacity in return. We owe them the courage to innovate, even though it’s going to be hard work. When we can say with confidence that we can graduate all of our college students, then our society will be more democratic and more prosperous than even a dreamer like Thomas Jefferson ever dared to imagine.

In this excerpt from her April 20, 2010 keynote address, Melinda Gates discusses the role of distance learning and the need for creative solutions to help more community-college students complete their degrees.
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