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2008 December 15 - 12:00 am

Philanthropists and Officials Spotlight Community Colleges

Long the neglected stepchildren of American higher education, community colleges have come front-and-center in the eyes of policy-makers and philanthropists as students flock to the schools.

The economy is boosting interest in two-year schools as a cheaper starting point for a bachelor’s degree, and also as the place for job retraining as unemployment hovers at a 14-year high of 6.7 percent. Enrollment is up about 8 percent this fall, a community colleges group estimates.

In the Washington area, supporters of community colleges hope to find an advocate in Jill Biden, wife of incoming Vice President Joe Biden. She’s a community college professor who wrote her doctoral dissertation on community college retention issues.

But perhaps even more important is the unprecedented attention community colleges are attracting from a range of experts and organizations wrestling with some of education’s most intractable problems — namely, low achievement for poor and minority students, and embarrassing college completion rates.

While the United States has one of the highest proportions of young adults enrolled in college, it lags behind a dozen or so rivals in the proportion who complete a degree.

The new philanthropic attention was underscored last month when the giant Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced plans to spend up to half a billion dollars over the next four years on a college completion initiative. Notably, officials said the initial focus will be on two-year schools, which educate nearly half of American college students. The foundation’s goal is doubling the current proportion of about 25 percent of low-income people who earn a postsecondary credential.

“More young people are enrolled in college this year than ever before,” Melinda Gates said at the Seattle conference where the initiative was announced. “But the payoff doesn’t come with enrolling in college; the payoff comes when a student gets a postsecondary degree that helps them get a job with a family wage.”

A 2006 national commission on higher education reported one-third of whites obtain a bachelor’s degree by age 25 to 29, but only 18 percent of blacks and 10 percent of Latinos do so.

Among college-qualified students, 81 percent from high-income families complete a bachelor’s degree, compared to just 36 percent from low-income families. (This base group includes students who meet any of five criteria, such as a GPA of 2.7 or combined SAT score of 820, suggesting they are qualified for college.)

The Gates announcement represents the growing recognition that solutions to those problems will have to target community colleges, which educate a disproportionate share of the racial and ethnic groups that are falling behind. Fewer than half of community college students complete an associate’s degree or successfully transfer.

Or as the Gates Foundation’s Hilary Pennington told the conference in blunt financial terms: “More than half of all dollars spent on postsecondary education in this country is spent on students who never finish.”

The Gates announcement follows several other prominent foundations, including Lumina, Kellogg and Ford, that have recently begun focusing on community colleges, said Carol Lincoln, the national director of Achieving the Dream, an initiative working with 84 institutions on localized, bottom-up programs to improve student success rates.

But the Gates initiative sends a big signal, not only because of the foundation’s size — it had assets of $35.1 billion as of Oct. 1 — but also because Gates is known for rigorously researching its funding choices to determine where it can make the most difference.

“When people hear the Gates Foundation is considering investing in something, it attracts attention,” Lincoln said.

“I think it’s going to be a tremendous impact,” she added.

The Gates Foundation plans to begin announcing grants this month.

Projects will include efforts to tilt the financial aid system to encourage degree completion and not just enrollment, and boosting remedial education.

The bad news is community colleges, at a time of acute demand, are likely to face sharp state funding cuts due to the economic downturn.

But outside the system community colleges run on day-to-day, a critical mass of resources appears to be circling the same problem: What will it take to get more of the students who come to community colleges the credential they need to get a job or continue their education?

“`You’re getting enough concentration on enough big ideas that they might be able to make a difference,” Lincoln said.

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