Special Reports

How Gates Shapes State Higher-Education Policy

Bradley E. Clift for The Chronicle

Saverio Perugini, a math professor at Gateway Community College, in Connecticut, says state lawmakers have overridden academics' efforts.
July 14, 2013

Over the past several years, lawmakers in dozens of states have passed laws restricting remedial college courses and tying appropriations to graduation rates. The changes have been advanced by an unusual alliance of private foundations and state policy makers who are shaping higher-education strategies in profound ways.

At the center of that effort, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has financed studies that argue for broad-scale changes aimed at pushing more students, more quickly, toward graduation. Working alongside the Lumina Foundation through intermediaries like Complete College America and another nonprofit, Jobs for the Future, the Gates foundation has helped influence higher-education policy at the state level to a degree that may be unprecedented for a private foundation.

At a time when college budgets are strained from decades of cuts in state support, Gates grantees have urged lawmakers to allocate spending more efficiently, emphasizing the need for more students to graduate and presenting evidence that remedial courses hold them back.

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Only about 58 percent of first-time, full-time students who start at a four-year college receive a bachelor's degree from that college within six years. Most higher-education experts agree that that's a problem.

But some object to the way Gates and legislators have gone about tackling the issue. The influence of a major foundation and its grantees in state policy discussions makes some experts uncomfortable, since as a private entity Gates is not accountable to voters. They contend that the strategy bypasses colleges themselves and imposes top-down solutions, seeking quick fixes for complicated problems.

"You create this whole hyped-up, get-it-done-fast mentality," says Debra Humphreys, vice president for policy and public engagement for the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Association officials have argued that the completion agenda being pushed by the Gates foundation doesn't pay enough attention to educational quality, and that it focuses too narrowly on getting students through as quickly as possible.

Gates officials say they're merely making sure states get the data they need to make smart policy decisions. Working at a state level allows the foundation to reach more students than they could with a small pilot program, they point out. And they say that rather than bypassing academic experts, they are shining a national spotlight on those with workable solutions that can be broadly applied.

Lydia Jandreau, a 44-year-old massage therapist, is the kind of student the Gates efforts want to reach. It had been 25 years since her last math class when she applied to a nursing program at Gateway Community College, in Connecticut, and she knew math would be her biggest hurdle. With two semesters of remedial math, she says she's ready to face a college-level course. But beginning next year, Gateway will be allowed to offer only a single semester.

With one semester, "I could have muddled by with a C and gotten the basic concepts," Ms. Jandreau says. "But the way I look at it, I'm building my academic house, and I want it to have a solid foundation."

The remediation restrictions were part of a law Connecticut legislators passed last year designed to steer students more quickly into credit-bearing courses. It came about after a state lawmaker, who was already worried about dismal completion rates for students who start out in remedial classes, attended a "remediation institute" hosted by Complete College America.

The Gates foundation realized early on that remedial education "was a pretty substantial barrier to access to college courses, and that they and others needed to break through that," says Stan Jones, president of Complete College America and a former higher-education commissioner in Indiana. He cited data showing that only a quarter of community-college students who start out in such courses earn a credential within eight years.

To that end, in 2009 the foundation helped start Complete College America with an $8-million grant and an introduction to other philanthropies to help the group raise more money. Its agenda calls for streamlining or eliminating remedial classes, providing more academic support in credit-bearing courses, and providing colleges with financial incentives to graduate more students. Gates has since awarded an additional $1.2-million to the group, and the foundation's support makes up about 60 percent of Complete College America's annual budget. The nonprofit has also received $1.7-million from the Lumina Foundation.

It has become one of the most influential recipients of Gates and Lumina money. Complete College America has persuaded 32 states, plus the District of Columbia, to join an alliance whose members pledge to "develop and implement aggressive state and campus-level action plans" to meet college-completion goals. And more than a dozen states have adopted performance-based financing, tying appropriations to colleges' graduation rates.

"Four years ago, there might have been three states with performance-based funding," says Mr. Jones, who credits the Gates foundation's investment for his group's success in increasing that number. All but about 11 states are either discussing such a shift or in the process of adopting it.

Complete College America has also succeeded in getting many states to overhaul remedial education, urging lawmakers to replace such courses with credit-bearing ones that include tutoring. In 2010, Tennessee approved legislation limiting remedial coursework to community colleges. Florida lawmakers cited Complete College America's research in June when they approved legislation giving college students a choice whether they wanted to take, or even test for, remedial courses. Drawing on figures from the National Governors Association, states, and colleges, the nonprofit produces state-specific reports showing where students get waylaid on their paths to graduation.

"You sit in a room and listen to this data, and it's devastating," says Beth Bye, a Democratic senator in Connecticut, of the Complete College America remediation institute she attended with representatives of the governor's office and state board of regents. "It raised my awareness of the problem to a new level."

Critics blasted her for being "a Gates tool," she says, but she adds that she was tired of waiting for "another task force and another pilot" to fix the problem. The legislature also approved $2-million to help provide extra tutoring support for community and technical colleges over the next two fiscal years.

With the right tutoring and support, most students can make the leap into credit-bearing courses more quickly, according to many of the groups the Gates foundation supports. But some academic experts warn that students who are way behind may flounder in credit-bearing courses, that professors will be overburdened having to accommodate such a wide range of levels, and that stronger students will be hurt if classes are dumbed down.

Saverio Perugini, a professor and academic coordinator of the math department at Gateway, objects to lawmakers dictating the curriculum. The college now offers more than 50 sections of remedial math each semester to about 1,500 students, and has started experimenting with a streamlined, intensive approach to get more students into credit-bearing courses. The new law, which takes effect next year, will "put the kibosh" on his department's own efforts, he says.

While he understands the frustration in seeing so few students who start out in remedial education succeed, limiting them to a single semester of remediation isn't likely to work for students who are too far behind, he worries. "How do you add polynomials if you can't add basic numbers?" he asks. "It's like taking a Little Leaguer and putting him straight into the majors."

Many remediation experts agree. Patti Levine-Brown, president of the National Association for Developmental Education, says the push to eliminate most free-standing developmental-education courses ignores academic research showing that poor and minority students will be disproportionately hurt if they're placed in college courses before they're ready. The people who work for the Gates foundation "don't have backgrounds in developmental education," she says. "I wouldn't go into an emergency room and try to tell a doctor how to do a surgical procedure I know nothing about."

Other remediation experts say that message has been ignored.

Hunter R. Boylan, director of the National Center for Developmental Education and a professor of higher education at Appalachian State University, says he was initially encouraged when representatives from Complete College America sat down in 2011 with experts at a meeting of the National Association for Developmental Education. The educators warned that cutting remedial classes might resegregate colleges, with underprepared low-income students getting tracked to vocational fields.

A few months later, Complete College America released a report calling remedial courses "a bridge to nowhere." Eight months after that, it joined other Gates grantees in releasing another report recommending that stand-alone remedial classes be scrapped and replaced with support embedded in credit-bearing courses.

"They've absolutely ignored the professional community in developmental education," Mr. Boylan says. The national remediation association responded by cautioning states to try such changes on a small scale, study whether they're working, and consider the impact on disadvantaged students if remedial classes were eliminated. Colleges in a few states, including Florida, Virginia, and New Jersey, have moved ahead with pilot studies.

Gates has also worked through Jobs for the Future to shape state policy for streamlining remedial classes. The nonprofit has received about $17-million in Gates grants specifically for programs and state-level advocacy work to raise the number of low-income and underprepared students who earn community-college credentials.

Jobs for the Future has also received $16.3-million from Lumina, of which $6.3-million was passed through to participating states.

In one of its Gates-supported programs, Accelerating Opportunity, the group is working with seven states to redesign adult basic education so more students earn credentials that will help them get jobs that pay enough to support their families. In the second, Completion by Design, Jobs for the Future works with teams in three states—Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio—to develop policies that remove impediments to college completion, including in some cases eliminating placement in remedial courses.

The Gates influence was on full display during an April visit to the Texas Capitol by Mr. Jones from Complete College America, representatives of two Gates-supported statewide groups, and the provost of Texas State University, Gene Bourgeois. The provost described how a $1-million grant from the foundation had allowed the university to overhaul its math-remediation approach and to begin replicating it at 13 other two- and four-year colleges across Texas.

Mr. Bourgeois said 84 percent of the participating students, who work with peer tutors in credit-bearing courses, passed with a C or better, compared with 62 percent of those who went through remedial math.

The Gates foundation has also supported the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board's effort to close college-attainment gaps for the state's rapidly growing minority population by 2015, through a nonprofit called the College for All Texans Foundation. That group released a report in April that concluded that the state could raise its graduation rates by 50 percent if it took a number of steps, including adopting performance-based financing and having students take credit-bearing courses alongside remedial courses.

Because so much of the data used to support such efforts comes from studies Gates has poured money into, skeptics question how objective it really is.

Thomas Bailey, director of Columbia University's Community College Research Center, says that his center receives money from Lumina and the U.S. Department of Education, in addition to Gates, and that he's never felt pressured to produce results that synched with a particular Gates strategy.

And there are limits to the foundation's influence. Texas lawmakers this year debated, but ultimately failed to approve, legislation that would tie at least 10 percent of a college's state support to performance measures such as graduation rates or career-readiness milestones. That effort had better luck in Tennessee, which, since 2010, has allocated nearly 100 percent of college appropriations based on performance measures.

Although Tennessee had started working on improving its college-completion rates before Gates stepped in, "their interest and encouragement kept us moving," says the executive director of the state's higher-education commission, Richard G. Rhoda. "Big funders have a broader perspective than we have, so it gave us some confidence," along with $1-million to put the idea to the test.