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Foundation Launches $35 million Program to Help Boost Community College Graduation Rates | Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Melinda Gates announces Completion by Design to help community colleges better serve students

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

WASHINGTON --  Melinda Gates today announced that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is investing $34.8 million over five years to help dramatically increase the graduation rates of today’s community college students. The Completion by Design program will award competitive grants to groups of community colleges to devise and implement new approaches to make the college experience more responsive to today’s student.

“Most students today who are pursuing an education beyond high school are also balancing the demands of work and family,” Gates said. “Yet colleges haven’t adapted to this new reality. Completion by Design will give enterprising colleges the resources they need to pursue what works for students.”

Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, also planned to call today for making college completion a national priority. She will speak at the first-ever White House Community College Summit, led by Dr. Jill Biden. Higher education, business, philanthropic, and elected leaders will discuss the role of community colleges in meeting the nation’s education and workforce goals.

Today, community colleges serve nearly 11 million students, and enrollment has surged as the recession caused many Americans to return for additional training and education. Today’s students often are older and work full- or part-time to support families while getting their degrees.

Too many students never finish. According to the most recent federal data, just 22 percent of first-time, full-time students in community college graduate in three years. For Hispanics and African-Americans, it is even worse at 17 percent and 14 percent.

Solving this problem is important for our degree-seekers but also for the country. A report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce forecasts that, by 2018, 63 percent of jobs will require at least some postsecondary education. The report also shows that, without a dramatic change in course, the labor market will be short 3 million educated workers over the next eight years.

Despite the challenge, Gates is optimistic that Completion by Design, in conjunction with other reform work already underway, will help community colleges better serve students and increase the number of young people who obtain a degree, certificate, or credential.

“We’re learning everyday about the supports and structure today’s student needs to be successful,” Gates said. “We’re committed to helping colleges innovate and implement solutions so that all young people who want a postsecondary education have a legitimate chance to get one.”

Completion by Design will build on proven, existing practices already underway at a number of forward-thinking community colleges. The Request for Applications (RFA) announced today seek submissions from groups of community colleges in nine target states: Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, and Washington. Up to five multi-campus groups of community colleges will be selected in early 2011 through a competitive evaluation process.

“No longer can we simply hand students a thick course catalog and ask them to choose classes and complete a degree,” said Hilary Pennington, director of education, postsecondary success at the Gates Foundation. “Completion by Design aims to get community colleges to restructure how they interact with the majority of their students from the moment they enter the college to the time they graduate to provide them the quickest, straightest path to a degree. When that happens, more students finish with a degree, certificate, or credential in hand.”

Each Completion by Design application must address the needs of low-income students by focusing on innovative approaches to financial aid counseling, course scheduling, and advising. For example, some community colleges have gotten better results by scheduling core classes at times when working students can take them.

Plans should identify ways to use technology to more efficiently serve and assess students, and colleges are asked to create strategies for intervening at critical points along a student’s college career.

“Today’s community college students need and deserve big game-changing reforms—ones that take into account the many barriers students face on the road to a degree,” said Pennington.

The foundation will study the progress at these colleges and help replicate the best practices at more schools—helping a greater number of students across the country.

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.

To learn more about Completion by Design, please visit

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