Press Room




Hilary Pennington - A Forum on Education in America

November 11, 2008

Prepared Remarks by Hilary Pennington, Director, Special Initiatives, United States Program

Good afternoon. Thank you, Juan, for that introduction. And thank you all for that welcome. So many of you have been partners and inspiration to me over the years; it is great to have you here with us. In this last hour of a long day, I want to build on Melinda’s remarks this morning to give you more detail about the new strategy we are launching.  

Vicki has already shared with you one extraordinarily important way that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is working to reduce inequity and increase opportunity in the U.S.—ensuring that high school students graduate with the skills they need to succeed in college.

But when I was hired as Director of U.S. Special Initiatives 20 months ago, it was to answer a simple but daunting question Bill and Melinda asked: “What else?”

What else should we be doing beyond our work in high school to increase opportunity in this country?

As many of you know, I approached this work after many years in the field—two years working with John Podesta as a senior fellow at The Center for American Progress and more than 20 years leading Jobs for the Future (JFF). John and JFF’s new leader, Marlene Seltzer, are here today and I’d like to recognize them and thank them for the great job they are doing.

But you should also know that my passion increasing access to opportunity comes from my life experience.

I was born in South Africa eight years after the apartheid regime came to power. My father was South African, my mother American. We came back to St. Louis when I was 3 because my father was sick. He died shortly afterwards, leaving my mother with three children under the age of 3.

She started the first program in continuing education for women at Washington University. She also fought to find decent educational opportunities for my sister, the youngest of us, who was born with significant learning disabilities. In the days before the Individuals with Disabilities Act, there wasn’t much available. My sister was in an abysmal special ed high school. My mother worked to get her out and created a work-based learning program for her at Children’s Hospital, where she trained to become a nurses’ aide.

So, very early in my life, I experienced what we all experience—losses I didn’t deserve and privilege I didn’t deserve—just by virtue of the accident of birth. Between my sister’s struggles and regular trips back to South Africa, I began to understand that when a society does not treat all lives as having equal value, we all suffer. Systemic, gross inequities damage both those with privilege and those without it.

These experiences led me to ask the very same question: “What else?”

What else can I do? What else can we do?

When Bill and Melinda asked that question, I viewed it not only as a great challenge, but as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

So we went to work, asking a lot of other questions to a lot of other people on the way.

We didn’t start out with education as a goal; our only commitment was to follow the evidence and focus on the approaches that would yield the greatest return.

But after tons of research and meeting with policy experts, practitioners, and other foundations, we came back to what has been the foundation’s domestic focus for the past eight years...because the evidence spoke clearly.

The highest leverage investment we can make—education.

This time, postsecondary education. And even more specifically, postsecondary success.

We are making a long-term commitment to this issue and we have set a goal that is ambitious and necessary: to double the number of young people who earn a postsecondary degree or credential with value in the workplace by the time they reach age 26.

The first part of that goal is a hard number. It means an increase of more than 250,000 graduates each year.

If you asked most Americans, they certainly believe that most people who enroll in college get the credential they came there to get. Yet, only slightly more than half of Americans earn some degree or credential after high school—and that drops to about 20 percent for low-income, black and Hispanic students.

As Melinda said earlier today, we have created a system that rewards getting students into college, but not out the other side with a degree. Today, more than half of all dollars spent on postsecondary education in this country is spent on students who never finish.

To turn that around, we will have to create a new set of incentives¬¬—one that rewards individuals and institutions not just for access but for completion.

The second part of the goal—making sure young adults get their credential by the age of 26, at or before the time they start families of their own—requires even more fundamental change.

We learned through our research that if young people don’t complete a credential by age 26, their chances of ever doing so go way down.

What would it take to re-orient our system so that it made degree completion likely for young adults?

Over the next three years, we are going to test approaches to answer that question. Our strategy has three parts, and I want to tell you a little about each of them before opening up to questions:

  • Support young adult success.

  • Build commitment to the goal of credential completion.

  • Improve system performance.

Our strategy begins first and foremost with supporting young adults and their success. The young adults Jane Buckingham talked about in her presentation.

According to a Rockefeller Foundation study taken before the September financial crisis, they see the American Dream becoming out of reach. They are more concerned about their economic future than previous generations; it’s hardly a surprise when you consider that they leave college with twice the debt load of earlier generations.

But despite this, they are also committed to doing the work that’s necessary to get ahead.

Recently, we met with a group of community college students who really reinforced this. Some talked about studying until 2 or 3 in the morning, and how they then had to wake up just a couple of hours later to go to work and to school.

Others simply can’t sleep at all. They worry too much. About tests and tuition. About gas prices and getting a job. In these times, about credit and debt.

The stress in these young adults is palpable.

But so is their pride in succeeding. One woman spoke of the day she’ll become an occupational therapist and her family can relax because she’ll be able to support them. As my friend, Wick Sloane, at Bunker Hill Community College says, “These are the individuals who, against the odds, choose education over extra food in the kitchen, and who, often on top of 50- or 60-hour work schedules, choose to come to school and learn.”

They have an incredible will to make the most of their lives. What they lack is the way to make their dreams a reality. That’s a tragic waste, and it’s one we cannot allow to continue.

That’s why we will make investments to figure out how to give young adults access to the tools they need to make good decisions about their future.

Before they sacrifice their time and money, they should be able to find out whether or not they are buying an education that is worth something. Which programs lead to the greatest opportunities? Which institutions have the best track record for getting their students through school and into careers?

We also plan to push the envelope on incentives that reinforce the motivation to succeed that exists among most young adults.

One great example of this is the success of performance-based incentives in places like Louisiana that encourage—and in many cases enable—students to enroll full-time so they can devote more hours to their studies.

You may be familiar with this program. In exchange for enrolling more than part-time, students get incentive payments: $250 when they register; $250 when they get their midcourse grades; and the rest at the end of the semester. So far, they have achieved significant increases in student retention by putting resources in the hands of young people themselves—not by adding more faculty or student support services, or resources to the institution.

If we are to double the numbers who complete a credential by the time they are 26, young adults will need a network of support for their success. They and we need partners.

One of those key partners is employers, especially employers of low-income, young adults. More than two-thirds of young postsecondary students work, and they have to struggle to balance work and school. Too often they are left with a no-win choice: drop out or keep a job. We need to build models of college that work for people that work and that add value for employers as well.

Sandy Weil, founder of the National Academy Foundation, is here today. We’re inspired by their success and how they’ve shown that participating in career academies results in an extra $4,000 a year in earnings eight years after students have graduated from high school. That’s the equivalent of two years of community colleges. And the results are greatest for African-American males.

The factor most associated with this success is students’ participation in work-based internships and their relationships with employer mentors.

Another great example is ArcelorMittal’s Steel Worker for the Future initiative. Students start off with several months of classes in a specifically designed two-year degree program, then alternate between paid on the job training and their community college courses. After three years, graduates earn an associate degree and the possibility of a full-time, well-paying steelworker’s job.

We want to support the development of many more models like this in jobs that promise good futures and help grow our economy.

If employers are one key support network, communities are another. We want to build communities of support around all young people.

We will work to build “on-ramps” to postsecondary success for young people who are not on a path straight from high school to college. We will forge partnerships with programs like YouthBuild and Gateway to College. In these programs, with a mix of academic coursework and strong support, young people who had little chance of graduating from high school are completing two- and sometimes four-year degrees.

So, supporting young adults—listening to them, connecting them. That’s first.

Second, we will encourage leaders and public policies to support postsecondary success.

Through a combination of federal, state, and philanthropic initiatives, college enrollment rates increased by more than 34 percent over the last 40 years.

Now we must exact the same pressure and strategies to get students to and through college.

We will use our voice—and encourage others to do the same—to raise awareness about the urgency of our goal and building support for the policy and financial commitments needed to achieve it.

Under our current system, the short-term “reward” for more education is generally more debt. And most existing aid programs don’t use their funding to encourage students to complete degrees. We want to encourage financial aid policies that not only increase affordability but also give incentives for completion.

We are intrigued by bold ideas like forgiving a percentage of a young person’s student loan for each year they complete, thereby ensuring young people finish and are not saddled with massive debt upon graduation.

We will also help create better information. We want to build on research like Pat Callan’s National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education Measuring Up report, the College Board’s Education Pays study and Kati Haycock and the Ed Trust’s report card on colleges that excel at enrolling and graduating low-income and minority students.

We will support research to identify the best policy approaches and the best institutional practices to accelerate completion, and we will leverage that information, sharing what we learn with key decision makers throughout the nation.

Our foundation has a strong and persuasive voice, and we will join you in advocating for policy changes and investments proven to get results.

Third, we must strengthen performance—improving existing institutions and experimenting with new approaches designed for the purpose of accelerating completion for low-income, young adults.

Simply put, young adults must be able to get further, faster. If they don’t, if they can’ is not their failing—it is ours.

We will partner with colleges and other postsecondary providers eager to consider new and innovative institutional designs that reduce the time and cost required to complete a credential.

Clayton Christensen, a leading expert on innovation, says that innovation is driven by companies who begin with the customer in mind.

Today’s postsecondary customer is pressed financially … and impatient with slow progress.  I don’t think anyone would conclude that today’s postsecondary system was built with their needs in mind.

So we will invest in two key areas for improving performance in existing institutions—expanding the use of technology and improving remedial education.

The Texas community college students we visited with last month told us how technology can accelerate their learning. It’s the same thing we’re hearing all over the country.

That’s why we will explore options for integrating technology into the postsecondary experience, both inside and outside the classroom. We will look to leaders in using technology like Rio Salado College in Arizona, which has a rich online course catalog that is complemented by online tutoring and support services.

We will also support the development of information systems that colleges can use to increase student success, like the ones at ITT and other for-profit colleges. They track when students are absent from class and simultaneously ping the student, the professor, and student support services to make sure the student gets the help they need to stay on course.

Finally, we will take a long hard look at one of the most important barriers to postsecondary completion today– remedial education.

Imagine arriving at college thinking you’re prepared and being mentally and financially ready for two to three years of long hours, hard work, and constant penny-pinching. Then you take a placement test, and learn that it will take twice as long.

That’s not only demoralizing … too often, it’s defeating.

That’s why a particular focus of our early investments will be supporting efforts to dramatically accelerate academic catch-up and improving the first year experience for all students.

Rather than placing academically underprepared students and remedial education at the margins of our institutions, we need to put them at the center of institutional innovation.

We know we can do better. Look at the for-profit colleges that allow core credits to be accumulated while students catch up on high school material.

Other public colleges, with support from the Lumina Foundation, are piloting approaches that keep the same students together in learning communities and place them in linked courses. The results are very encouraging, not only in better retention and performance but in increased student engagement and self-esteem.

We are partnering with Lumina to determine which approaches are the most effective and help rapidly scale them so that they reach most, not handfuls, of students in developmental education.

But to strengthen performance, we will look also at creating new institutions to show what is possible when a college is designed from the start with completion as the focus. 

We are intrigued by Seattle’s plans to design a college specifically around the needs of working adults: the course offerings are tailored to high-demand degree programs, classes are scheduled at convenient times, and students can accumulate credits quickly. Or the City University of New York’s plan to build a new community college for young adults aimed at increasing completion rates in part by eliminating distinct developmental education courses.

We see these next three years as a time to test and learn what works best and to recalibrate our efforts in light of what we learn as we get ready for the next phase of our investments.

We will aim our grants to create rapid feedback loops and learning communities. Keeping scale in mind from the beginning, we will invest in networks of colleges, employers, and youth-serving organizations, rather than individual programs.

We will invest in a handful of states and communities based on their concentration of our target population and their political commitment and capacity to move this agenda and reach our goal:

Doubling the numbers of low-income, young adults who complete a postsecondary credential by age 26.

Everything I’ve talked about–all the examples –what you are doing in the field … are learning laboratories, and we will use the knowledge gained to inform our efforts and those of others. And really, that is the point I want to leave you with today.

I come to this challenge not only with 20 months at the foundation, but 20 years in the field of education and workforce reform. Now, I’m a grant maker … one who has seen how together we can strengthen a grantee’s impact by paying more attention to results and coherent “theories of action.” But I was also a grant seeker. So I understand that foundations must do a better job at building organizational capacity and sticking to what we start–that we must pay more attention to scale and sustainability and public policy.

Today is Veteran’s Day.

It is fitting then that we remember that almost 65 years ago, as World War II was beginning to wind down, President Roosevelt and the American people looked at the sacrifice of our armed services and said we are grateful. But they also asked that same profound and enduring question: “What else?”

What else can we do honor our veterans? What else must we do for them to ensure the great country they risked their lives for offers the freedom and opportunity it promises?

The answer to that question was what President Roosevelt said “gives emphatic notice to the men and women in our armed forces that the American people do not intend to let them down.” The answer was that education would literally open the door to middle class for millions of young men and women and their children. The answer was one of most significant pieces of legislation in our nation’s history: the G.I. Bill.

Today, our challenge is not that different.

We, too, can ensure the opportunity America promises. And we, too, know the key to that is education.

That’s why we must have the same clear sense of purpose and resolve. We must be as big and bold as we were at the end of World War II. And we must do everything we can to make certain that postsecondary education is not just about access but success.

Together, let’s give emphatic notice that doubling the number of young people who earn a postsecondary degree or credential with value in the workplace by the time they reach age 26 is goal we can realize.

I know that you share this goal. And it is your work, your commitment, and your expertise that inspire us to believe we can reach it.

We’re grateful for all that you do. And we’re honored to be your partner, and we look forward to working with you. Thank you for being here with us today.

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