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Foundation Giving $110 Million to Transform Remedial Education | Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Investments target the 60 percent of community college students that need academic catch-up

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Phone: +1.206.709.3400

SEATTLE -- Melinda French Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, urged community college presidents today to boost graduation rates by replacing weak remedial programs with new technologies and fresh ideas. Gates pledged up to $110 million in investments to help scale initiatives that accelerate academic catch up.

Gates delivered the closing speech at the 90th Annual American Association of Community Colleges Convention in Seattle, and called traditional remedial programs “an afterthought” on most campuses. These low-quality programs that are supposed to help students catch up academically are actually the biggest obstacles students must overcome in their pursuit of a college degree, she said.

“Community colleges led the way on college access, now they must lead the way on college completion,” said Gates. “Research shows that improving remediation is the single most important thing community colleges can do to increase the number of students who graduate with a certificate or a degree.”

Nationally, it is estimated that up to 60 percent of students enrolling in community colleges must take at least one remedial course (also called developmental education) to build their basic academic skills. But only about 25 percent of all students who take these courses earn a degree within eight years of enrolling. What’s more, these classes cost students, colleges and taxpayers an estimated $2 billion a year.

Gates called upon community colleges to make successful academic catch up a focal point for innovation, research, and development.

“Either [community colleges] can keep doing what you’ve been doing, in which case you will gradually find yourself able to meet fewer and fewer of your students’ needs, or you can innovate,” she said. “You can educate your students according to new models that yield dramatically better results for a fraction of the cost.”

To aid community colleges in developmental education reform, the foundation announced a commitment of up to $110 million to help research and scale innovative programs. These strategies will help under-prepared students spend less time and money catching up, and will lead to improved retention and completion. About half of the foundation’s commitment has already been given to colleges and programs. The remaining $57 million will be given as grants over the next two years and will be guided by lessons learned through the earlier investments, which are showing that good remedial education contains several key elements:

  • It starts early with effective collaboration between middle schools, high schools and colleges that can prevent the need for remediation in the first place. For example, El Paso Community College partners with local school districts and the University of Texas at El Paso, which has dramatically improved graduation rates in just a few short years.
  • It is tightly structured blending credit-bearing classes with enhanced academic supports. For example, Washington state’s I-BEST program blends basic academics and career training into a seamless accelerated program.
  • It’s flexible and personalized to address specific skill gaps to ensure that students learn what they need. This can be accomplished through technology and other means to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of remedial education. Monterey Institute for Technology and Education, for example, will fund the development of remedial math courses that will be made available for free to colleges. The project aims to reduce the time and cost of remediation through interactive and adaptive multimedia and games.
“Academic catch up should be a launching point for students, not a roadblock,” said Hilary Pennington, Director of Education, Postsecondary Success and Special Initiatives at the Gates Foundation. “When students feel as though their academic catch up is not a waste of time and money they will stay motivated, and we’ll begin to see improved retention and completion.”

Community colleges serve more than 11 million students every year. More than half of low-income students begin their postsecondary education at a community college. For many they are the best opportunity for earning a degree necessary for a good job in today’s economy or going onto a four year college. Employees with higher education are more likely to be engaged in their communities, more productive and they earn more money than those who only graduated from high school.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor estimates, by 2016, half of all U.S. jobs will require college-level skills. Our ability to meet President Obama’s goal to again make America the nation with the highest percentage of college graduates will depend upon the ability of our colleges’ to engage, accelerate, and graduate the millions of underprepared students that walk through their doors each year.

The Gates Foundation’s Postsecondary Success initiative aims to dramatically increase the number of low-income students who earn a valued postsecondary degree or credential. Since 2000, the foundation has invested nearly $5 billion in grants and scholarships to improve opportunity in the United States by improving schools, raising college-ready graduation rates, and increasing college completion rates.

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