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Latest Gates Foundation Awards Focus on College Completion

SEATTLE – 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 instead on college graduation rates.

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

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.

– Ten percent of the students enrolled as freshmen 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 ninth-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.”

Mayor Scott Smith of Mesa, Ariz., said his city’s lack of success at getting high school graduates to also complete college has hurt its ability to attract new employers. He said community leaders had already been talking about the problem when the Gates Foundation and the League of Cities showed up to help.

“Hopefully we can learn things … that can then be shared with other cities and other school districts around the country,” Smith said.

Dennis M. Walcott, New York City’s deputy mayor for Education and Community Development, said the city’s K-12 education department and the City University of New York have worked together for years, sharing information and building common goals.

The mayor has instructed them to come up with a common definition of college readiness and to coordinate and advance academic counseling, Walcott added.

“This grant allows us to really increase that output,” he said. “We all have a common interest in increasing student performance and outcomes.”

Since 2000, the Gates 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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