Getting to the Finish Line
June 17, 2009

WASHINGTON -- Following the lead of President Obama, who stressed the 
importance of college graduation rates in his first address to 
Congress earlier this year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on 
Tuesday announced more than $6.4 million in grants to national policy 
organizations for efforts to identify why so many young Americans 
drop out of college.

"Today, a two-year or four-year college degree or certificate is a 
prerequisite for economic success," Hilary Pennington, director of 
education, postsecondary success and special initiatives for the 
Gates Foundation, said to an audience of higher education 
professionals gathered at the Library of Congress here. Yet while 
tangible economic incentives to finish college are evident, she said, 
completion rates have been stagnant since the 1970s. While the United 
States once led the world in terms of postsecondary completion rates, 
it now ranks 10th.

That is why, Pennington said, the Gates Foundation is expanding its 
efforts in areas of high school completion and college preparation to 
study and improve the ways colleges and policy makers can help 
students -- especially low-income, African American, Hispanic and 
nontraditional students -- complete degrees (four-year and otherwise).

The grants announced Tuesday include $1.25 million for the American 
Enterprise Institute; $800,000 for the Center for American Progress; 
$1.5 million for the Center for Law and Social Policy; $675,000 for 
the College Board; $600,000 for Excelencia in Education; and $1.58 
million for the Institute for Higher Education Policy. Initiatives 
that will be funded through the grants focus on developing policy 
proposals, collecting usable data, and promoting innovation on an 
institutional level.

"Students need to be ready for college but colleges have to be ready 
for students," Kevin Carey, policy director for Education Sector and 
moderator of Tuesday's panel discussion, said, asking the national 
policy organization officials on the panel what needs to be done to 
shift the responsibility a little more evenly from students to 

One issue is with funding, panel members said. This country invests 
50 times more money in initiatives aimed at giving students access to 
college than it does in efforts designed to ensure that they succeed 
once there, said Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, senior policy analyst at 
the Center for Law and Social Policy. That is a major "stumbling 
block" in terms of policy, she said, mentioning later an example of 
one state -- Oklahoma -- that has successfully provided incentives 
for college completion rates by tying them to state funding. 
According to a February report by the Midwestern Higher Education 
Compact, performance funding in Oklahoma -- focused on student 
retention, graduation, and degree completion -- has averaged $2.2 
million per year.

But a one-size-fits-all model will not address the widely varying 
needs of colleges, the panelists emphasized. Mark Schneider, vice 
president of the American Institutes for Research and visiting 
scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy 
Research, cited a report released by AEI last week showing that even 
among "competitive" colleges, graduation rates range from just over 
20 percent to more than 70 percent.

Gathering more thorough information about individual colleges would 
help identify what's working and what's not, Schneider said, adding 
that he supports the notion of developing a federal database of 
student records to allow policymakers to track their progress across 
institutions -- a debate that has raged for years. But, he said, 
"surprise, surprise, there are political problems" involved in 
national data collection, and the current method of collection -- the 
Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System -- leaves out 
information that could be useful for evaluating colleges, including 
figures that could encourage more nontraditional students to pursue 
and finish degrees (like how much and often the college discounts 
tuition for low-income applicants).

It's also important, though, that policy makers avoid just "talking 
to each other," Schneider said. A major factor in a successful degree 
completion initiative would have to be the dissemination of 
information to colleges and applicants.

For Sarita Brown, president of Excelencia in Education -- which aims 
to accelerate Latino students' success in higher education -- that 
means bringing to low-income and minority students the kind of 
"conversations that regularly go on at middle-class breakfast tables."

Schneider agreed, suggesting college applicants who traditionally 
miss out on adequate college counseling should have access to 
information not just about which institutions they are qualified to 
attend, but also the relative statistics for each -- especially each 
college's graduation rates for minority populations. That means 
getting information into "the hands of people who really matter" -- 
students, parents and guidance counselors.

"The question comes up, 'If we only knew what works,' " said Tom 
Rudin, senior vice president for advocacy, government relations and 
development for the College Board. "Well we do know what works."

Testing workable ideas on real campuses -- not just talking "from 
30,000 feet" as Brown warned against -- and taking a more one-on-one 
approach with students have proven successful in the past, he said, 
and should be emphasized in the future. There are "programs all over 
the place" that serve as positive role models in that regard -- the 
"Call Me MISTER" initiative at Clemson University is one.

But underlying any new initiative for an increase in college 
graduation rates has to be a recognition that the landscape of 
students and the institutions they choose is changing, Duke-Benfield 
said. Higher education is "largely in denial" about the demographic 
shift in college attendees toward more nontraditional students, she 
said, and a major focus in the efforts funded by the Gates grants 
should be on ways to reach and support today's students.

Gates officials promised that they would be responding to many of 
those suggestions as they announce more grants in the coming weeks 
and months.
- Kate Maternowski

Stolen from Inside Higher Education
Norman A. Stahl, Ph.D.
Professor and Chair
Literacy Education

Past President, National Reading Conference

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