Can $100 Million Help Student-Success Programs Work Together, Rather Than Compete?

Published By
The Chronicle of Higher Education
Published On
September 15, 2022

Six nonprofit groups that help low-income and other disadvantaged students graduate from college will receive a $100-million infusion of funds over the next five years to aid hundreds of colleges in transforming their practices and cultures, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced on Thursday.

The goal is to create networks of colleges that can work with the nonprofits to advance promising student-success strategies. The nonprofits, which the foundation has been collaborating with since 2019, have been particularly effective at recognizing the causes of, and helping shrink, stubborn disparities in achievement among low-income, Black, Latino, and Indigenous students, the foundation said. The nonprofits will identify and connect at least 250 colleges to help them accelerate change.

The recipients of the $100 million are:

  • The American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
  • The American Indian Higher Education Consortium.
  • Complete College America.
  • Excelencia in Education.
  • Growing Inland Achievement.
  • The United Negro College Fund.

With enrollments declining, costs rising, and public confidence in higher education eroding, colleges are under increasing pressure to transform, foundation officials said. Undergraduate enrollment slid 6 percent from 2019 to 2021, with freshman enrollment dropping 13 percent during that time. Meanwhile, an increasing share of jobs are requiring education beyond high school, but some students need convincing: A recent survey by Public Agenda found that two- thirds of Americans lacked confidence in higher education.

In recent years, dozens of groups with student-success programs have ended up competing for financial support and attention on their campuses, their strategies pushed to the side to make room for the latest new initiative. The Gates Foundation is hoping that the umbrella groups it’s identified can help colleges devise systems that allow them to piece together remedial reform, curricular pathways, and other strategies that it said have shown promise.

What the foundation has heard from college presidents “is that this is a lonely, isolating gig,” and learning from other colleges about what works, and what doesn’t, would help, said Patrick Methvin, the foundation’s director of postsecondary success.

The foundation describes the transformation it is seeking to foster as “redesigning an institution’s structure, business model, and culture to dramatically improve student outcomes and educational value, and eliminate race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status as predictors of success.”

The state-colleges association announced the award on its website, saying the funds would help overhaul practices at 19 diverse colleges and universities serving more than 228,000 students, nearly half of whom are eligible for Pell Grants. The association will require the colleges it selects to assemble teams of key campus leaders and to ensure that the president is involved.

Michael L. Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund, said in a written statement that the grant would allow his group to expand the efforts of its Institute for Capacity Building to improve the rates of enrollment, graduation, internships, and job placement at its member colleges. “Advancing Black higher education through institutional transformation is in UNCF’s DNA,” Lomax said.

Carlos Ayala, president of Growing Inland Achievement, a regional effort in Southern California for elementary, secondary, and postsecondary education, said collaboration among colleges would be key. “To succeed in this work, we must meet our colleges and universities where they are in their student-success journeys and dig deep into root causes contributing to inequities for historically marginalized populations,” he said.

Tribal colleges that benefit from the grant to the American Indian consortium will be able to expand student-success efforts in ways that value their unique tribal identities and cultures, consortium officials said.

Yolanda Watson Spiva, president of Complete College America, summarized why she feels the award comes at a crucial time. “College costs are rising, enrollment is declining, public trust in education is dwindling, and the gains in college access, equity, and completion we fought so hard to achieve are at risk,” she said. “We cannot allow these risks to take hold for the long term.”

Graphic pop-up featuring Latino College Completion