Gates Foundation Leader Makes the Case to Spur Economic Growth through Increased College Completion

Jul 21, 2011 by Mary Fulton

Hilary Pennington, Director of Education, Postsecondary Success and Special Initiatives for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation set the stage for the 2011 ECS National Forum on Education Policy by describing the challenges that policymakers and practitioners face to meet college completion goals and workforce demands. During the plenary session, Pennington also offered four strategies to increase postsecondary readiness and productivity.

Pennington shared the Gates Foundation’s ambitious goal to double the number of low-income adults who earn a college degree or a credential that meets job-market demands by age 26. Currently, only 44% of young adults earn a postsecondary degree or certificate by that age. This percentage drops to 19% for people of color and 9% for people from low-income households. Given America’s demographic trends, the net growth in college attainment will have to come from these last two groups of students. And with 75% of the postsecondary population now considered “nontraditional,” Pennington argued, higher education must continually adapt its policies and practices to serve their students if the nation is to significantly increase graduation rates.

While postsecondary enrollment is increasing, completion rates remain stagnant – a reality that does not bode well for the nation. Pennington cited recent research from Georgetown’s Center for Education and the Workforce that by 2018, 63% of the jobs will require some form of postsecondary education.  The U.S. economy will need 22 million postsecondary graduates, but at the current pace, the nation will produce only 19 million, leaving a shortfall of 3 million. Please see Pennington’s PowerPoint slides for the data sources.

Ms. Pennington also presented – and debunked – two myths related to college attainment and completion.

  1. A College Degree Is Not Worth the Investment to Individuals and Society
    Data show that individuals with college credentials earn higher wages and contribute more tax revenues. But it is not only bachelor’s degrees that matter. Pennington cited, for example, a Complete College America report entitled Certificates Count indicating that certificates often provide a bigger payoff for students.


  2. Low College Completion Rates are the Student’s Fault
    The wide variation in graduation rates that exist – even among similar institutions and within the same system and state – are often a result of policies, practices and strategies that complicate student success. Higher education and state leaders should examine why some institutions do better at helping students complete their programs on time and with reasonable costs.

In acknowledging the challenging and changing times, Hilary Pennington offered four strategies to increase college attainment and spur economic development:

  1. Collect data on postsecondary systems to evaluate effectiveness and target limited resources
  2. Shift institutional focus to completion and workforce development by setting explicit goals and rewarding performance
  3. Restructure students’ experience to ensure they are prepared for and on a path toward college upon graduating from high school
  4. Support innovative instructional delivery models that use technology to accelerate student completion and are based on competencies students need to master in their chosen disciplines.

Ms. Pennington closed her remarks by emphasizing the Gates Foundation’s role as a facilitator and partner with states and institutional leaders. The Foundation is investing in a wide range of projects, including the development of college completion models through the Completion by Design Initiative; state-level policy change through Complete College America; and work with state legislative leaders through a partnership with ECS, entitled Boosting College Completion for a New Economy.



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