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Doubling Up: Melinda French Gates Sets Goal to Significantly Increase Numbers of Low-Income Students Earning Postsecondary Degrees

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“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 – and that’s not happening nearly enough.”

In a speech preceding her husband’s, Melinda French Gates, who also serves as a cochair and trustee of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, discussed the foundation’s new focus on college completion and announced a goal of doubling the number of low-income students who earn college degrees.

Gates noted that the disappearance of good factory jobs has left education as the last equalizer. “Historically in America, there have been two paths out of poverty,” she said. “In the decades after World War II, good wages for factory workers offered an upward path for people who were born poor and wanted to do better than their parents. That way out is ending. The median wage for workers with no college is now close to the poverty line for a family of four. But that doesn’t really capture the problem. It’s not just that wages are shrinking; the jobs are vanishing.  … That leaves only one path out of poverty: education—a college education.”

Recognizing that more young people enrolled in college this year than ever before, Gates stressed that simply enrolling in college was not sufficient, saying, “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 – and that’s not happening nearly enough.”

Noting that the nation spends more than $100 billion annually on student aid, Gates said that the foundation will examine how this money could be used to encourage students to finish college. One possible modification she suggested was changing tuition and government funding so that a college gets less money up front for enrolling a student and more after the student actually earns a degree.

She also discussed the potential of performance-based scholarships for students that provide a greater financial incentive to finish school, partnerships between colleges and local employers to match students to jobs, and improvements that accelerate academic “catch-up” for students who are behind. “Only one-third of all students enrolled in remedial education ever pass the exam and go on to earn college credits,” she said. “One-third! The rest get bogged down in remediation and quit.”

Gates said that the foundation’s work over the next several years will focus on two-year colleges because these schools enroll the majority of low-income students.  “No country has the resources to guarantee a livelihood for people who aren’t willing to work hard,” Gates said. “But nothing is more damaging to a country than to have millions of young people with no opportunities. In any society, there will always be some who perform well and others who don’t. But in a strong society, those differences are determined by people’s talent and energy and not by the income of their parents. That’s why we’re committed to this work—we know of no better way to expand opportunity and make the future brighter for millions of Americans.”

Melinda French Gates’s entire speech is available at http://tinyurl.com/57heam.

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