Gates Foundation picks Chapel Hill non-profit for $16.5M grant

Overall program sets target of doubling the number of low-income adults who earn post-secondary degrees or credentials by age 26. MDC Inc. to oversee community college effort.

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Philanthropy Journal
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — A Chapel Hill nonprofit will receive $16.5 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to manage a central piece of the funder's new effort to increase success in higher education.
MDC Inc., which works to reduce poverty and increase opportunity for low-income people, will manage Gates' efforts to identify and bolster community colleges across the U.S. that have shown success in moving adults through remedial education and on to degree-granting courses.

The community college effort is part of the Gates Foundation's larger goal of doubling the number of low-income adults who earn post-secondary degrees or credentials by age 26.

The foundation hopes to achieve that goal by the year 2025, and in early December announced 25 grants totaling $69 million toward the effort, an investment that could add up to $500 million over the next three, said Marie Groark, foundation spokeswoman.

Gates tapped MDC for the job in large part because of its near-40-year history working with community colleges, most recently through its Achieving the Dream initiative that tries to boost students' success in community-colleges that serve high percentages of low-income students and students of color.

"What you'll see is a real focus in the community college space to understand what works," Groark said. "The work of Achieving the Dream has been so fantastic in the past few years and has laid a foundation for understanding ... what works. We'll be strengthening some of those practices that are promising and then preparing those, if they seem to be panning out, for scale in fours years or so."

The data MDC and Achieving the Dream have collected and the infrastructure that already is in place will provide a starting point for the foundation's work to improve remedial education.

"This means a validation of the power of the concept of Achieving the Dream," said David Dodson, president of MDC. That is, he added, "the belief that community colleges are the on-ramps and the pathways to opportunity for people who begin with either limited circumstances, are not fully prepared or who simply want a flexible, low-cost, student-centered start to post-secondary education."

The foundation is focusing its larger effort on the 10 million low-income Americans, aged 16 to 26, who are enrolled in higher education or are working.

The hope is to increase the number of low-income and minority students receiving post-secondary degrees, a statistic the foundation says now stands at only about two in 10.

To do that, Gates aims to boost the performance of colleges and universities and spur new, innovative ways of delivering education.

Throughout the U.S., more than four in 10 students begin their college studies with remedial education, and the numbers at community colleges are much higher, said Carol Lincoln, senior program director for MDC and national director of Achieving the Dream.

"That's a work force development issue, a threat to the American economy," said Lincoln, who will manage the Gates-backed effort for MDC.

Many students never make it out of the basic reading, writing and math classes that are needed to succeed in degree or certificate programs.

"Finally the country is waking up to the fact that if we want to move large numbers of people and position them for opportunity, we need to place our bets here," Dodson said of community colleges. "This is where students stumble. This is where so many hopes get dashed."

Specifically, MDC will identify up to 15 community colleges that already have begun the work of improving their programs.

Those schools will be chosen from among participants in the Achieving the Dream initiative that are close to completing a multi-year improvement process.

More than 82 schools in 15 states are participating in Achieving the Dream's demonstration projects, which are built on a student-centered model and use a data and evidence-based approach to boosting student outcomes.

Each of the schools selected will receive up to $700,000 over three years to tweak and build out its remedial-education programs, with the goal of discovering which approaches work best.

"I'm hoping we'll see at the college level innovations that produce results – innovations in instruction, curriculum, application of technology – that actually get students through developmental education successfully and into credit-bearing courses," Dodson said.

In addition, MDC and Achieving the Dream will provide technical assistance and opportunities for participating schools to network and learn from one another.

Much of that work will be done by Achieving the Dream's partner organizations – the Community College Leadership Program at the University of Texas at Austin; Jobs for the Future; the American Association of Community Colleges; MDRC; the Community College Research Center at Columbia University; and Public Agenda.

The goal right now is to have up to 15 community colleges selected this coming spring and ready to begin work in June.

MDC also will select five states that will commit time and investment in developing data systems and benchmarking activities to monitor remedial-education students in all their community colleges.

Those states then will look for ways to encourage schools to adopt promising practices and push for greater student success.

The community college effort will be evaluated on the back end with $1.5 million in funding from the Lumina Foundation, which has been the primary funder of the Achieving the Dream initiative over the past five years.

"I hope we can use this to show society that people who need extra preparation can get it, succeed and move on," Dodson said, "and I hope other colleges will see what's being done and replicate that so there will be a contagion to this work."