The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has announced a new initiative to double the number of college graduates who come from low-income families, citing education as the only reliable path out of poverty.

Officials unveiled the plan–which, if successful, would see 250,000 more college graduates per year–at the foundation’s Nov. 11 Forum on Education in Seattle. They hope to ensure that students receive their postsecondary degree or credential by the time they are 26.

"We learned through our research that if young people don’t complete a credential, their chances of ever doing so go way down," said Hilary Pennington, directed of special initiatives for the Gates Foundation.

The foundation plans to announce a small initial round of grants in December. Within a year, it plans to select eight to 10 states in which it will focus its work for the next three to five years. Other reports peg the total planned investment in these efforts as high as $3 billion, though foundation officials were unable to confirm this figure as of press time.

Gates Foundation co-chair and trustee Melinda Gates, who spoke at the forum, cited numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggesting that through 2014, more than half of all new jobs will require more than a high school degree.

"Historically in America, there have been two paths out of poverty. … You could graduate from high school at the top of your class, the bottom of your class, or not at all–[and] if you showed up smart, eager, and ready to work, you could earn a wage that would let you support a family," she said.

However, she said, the median wage for workers without a college education is now close to the poverty line for a family of four. To lower the number of families living in poverty, more people need to earn college degrees, she said.

"If we’re going to make a dent on poverty in America, we have to help more students get a postsecondary degree," she said.

Although policy makers have focused in the past on boosting enrollment and increasing students’ access to a college education, Gates said the payoff comes with actually earning a degree that helps students get a job with a decent wage.

To increase the number of students who receive postsecondary degrees, she said, incentives need to target college completion, not enrollment, by heightening the payoff for students, schools, and employers.

The foundation plans to start by targeting community colleges, because they enroll the majority of low-income students–and many have open admission and low tuition rates.

Gerardo E. de los Santos, president and chief executive officer of the League for Innovation in the Community College, said community colleges are often overlooked when discussing higher education.

"We are very excited and impressed that the Gates Foundation is recognizing the important role the community colleges play in this country by putting up a very sizable investment," he said.

Gates Foundation officials propose changing tuition and government funding so colleges get less money at the beginning of a student’s studies and more when the student finishes his or her degree program.

Another strategy the foundation plans to investigate is a performance-based incentive program, similar to one that was tried in Louisiana, Pennington said.

"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, [Louisiana colleges] 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," she said.

De los Santos said most people in higher education are concerned with making sure their students are completing school.

"We realize it’s not just about enrollment and access, but about completion. We also need to make sure we prepare students to be able to move forward … and be valuable in the workforce," he said. "It’s all about, eventually, getting the students jobs."

Gates said the foundation also will work to promote partnerships between colleges and local employers to make sure there is a job waiting for students when they complete their degrees.

De los Santos said schools and businesses need to work more collaboratively together.

"Community colleges can lead in that. We can keep our finger on the pulse of what [businesses need] and the jobs that are being created," he said.

At the forum, Bill Gates also spoke of continuing to work to make sure high school students are graduating and prepared to succeed in college. The foundation plans to push for national standards and experiment with performance-based teacher pay systems.

"The first step in identifying effective teaching has to be setting fewer, clearer, higher standards that are aligned with the goal of graduating students from high school college-ready. You can’t compare teachers if they’re not pursuing a common standard," he said.

Gates said he is optimistic that technology will be able to create advanced data systems that can provide information about student progress and tell which teachers are getting the biggest achievement gains each year.

"If we’re going to retain them, we’re going to have to reward them. It’s astonishing to me that you could have a system that doesn’t allow you to pay more for strong performance, or for teaching in a particular school. That is almost like saying teacher performance doesn’t matter … and that’s basically saying students don’t matter," he said. "If we don’t pay great teachers more, we won’t develop and keep more great teachers. This isn’t computer science; it’s common sense."

Links:

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

League for Innovation in the Community College