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2010 October 18 - 12:00 am

TRACKING TRENDS: Gates Foundation Launches New Graduation Initiative

SEATTLE (AP) — For many years, diversity in higher education has been measured by how many low-income students and students of color enroll in college. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation wants to make a dramatic change in that definition, by focusing on college graduation rates instead.

The foundation, along with the National League of Cities, has announced that four cities — New York City; San Francisco; Mesa, Arizona; and Riverside, Calif. — will each receive $3 million over the next three years for work designed to boost college graduation rates.

The foundation says its long-term goal is to double the number of low-income adults who earn a college degree or credential that meets job-market demands by age 26.

“The mayors in these cities are truly national leaders in recognizing the long-term impact of an educated workforce on their local economies,” said Donald J. Borut, executive director of the National League of Cities. “They are committed to bold goals for improving college completion rates and have created strong partnerships to address the challenges students face in earning a degree.”

The grants will pay for aligning academic standards between high school and college, strengthening data systems, implementing early assessment and college prep strategies and creating support systems to help students get through school.

Community colleges are considered critical to the effort because they offer affordable training and degrees to local residents. Across the country, enrollment is at an all-time high as students and displaced workers seek an edge in a tight job market.

But history shows that less than one-quarter of students earn a degree within three years. Often it’s not a question of effort. Rather, today’s students face multiple challenges: many are not academically ready for college-level work; they juggle school and family responsibilities; and many must work full-time while attending classes.

According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, the U.S. labor market will be short 3 million college-educated workers over the next eight years unless there is a dramatic increase in the number of young adults who successfully complete college. The mayors of the four cities receiving grants believe increasing completion rates requires the coordinated efforts among government agencies, higher education institutions, community groups and the private sector.

In announcing the grants, the foundation pointed out the following statistics about the cities where the money will be spent:

Low-income students who graduate from Mesa Public Schools and enroll at Mesa Community College have a 5.4 percent graduation rate.

Only 10 percent of the students enrolled as first-year students at the City University of New York in 2006 had earned an associate’s degree three years later.

Riverside City College has a graduation rate of 14 percent.

About 27 percent of 9th-graders in San Francisco will go on to earn a post-secondary credential or degree.

“We know that in today’s economic climate and labor market, a high school diploma is no longer enough,” said Allan Golston, president of the U.S. Program at the Gates Foundation. “We must not only ensure that young people have access to college; we must ensure that they go on to complete college and earn a degree or certificate with value in the workplace.”

Since 2000, the foundation has spent $5 billion on its efforts to improve American public schools, send kids to college and, over the past few years, improve college graduation rates.

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