Gates Foundation: Grants for Higher Education


OVERVIEW: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has the broad goal of supporting K-12 students' academic success and college readiness - especially for those from minority and low-income communities. Higher ed funding typically goes toward programs to get underserved students into college and ensure they succeed. Key programs for postsecondary grantseekers are College Ready Education and Postsecondary Success.

IP TAKE: Even though dealing with Gates may seem intimidating, the foundation has deep pockets and offers comprehensive web resources for potential grantees. Unsolicited applications and inquiries are generally not accepted, but check the site for open LOIs and RFPs

PROFILE: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has maintained a foothold in higher ed for some time, but it got officially serious about in 2008, according to The Seattle Times. The foundation announced some ambitious agenda items that year, such as doubling the number of students graduating and ensuring that 80% of low-income students have what they need to attend college by 2025.

There are essentially two programs through which Gates supports higher education in the U.S. The first is the College Ready Education program. According to the foundation, the goal of this program is "to support innovation that can improve U.S. K-12 public schools and ensure that students graduate from high school ready to succeed in college."

To those ends, Gates focuses its College Ready grantmaking on improving teacher training, assessment, and information sharing; Student Success through "high" but clearly defined standards, with the goal that "teachers, students, and parents are able to be on the same page"; and Shared Learning, a section of the College Readiness site that features "reports, white papers, case studies, videos, podcasts, and other research-based materials that highlight the work of our grantees and partners, as well as trends throughout K-12 education."

While most of the grants for the College Ready program go to non-higher-ed recipients, universities conducting research or doing other work in this area have earned significant funding from Gates, sometimes reaching into the several millions of dollars.

Postsecondary Success is the second component of Gates' education grantmaking. Here, overarching goals Gates seeks to achieve are to counterbalance the ever-widening education gap and to "ensure that all low-income young adults have affordable access to a quality postsecondary education that is tailored to their individual needs and educational goals and leads to timely completion of a degree or certificate with labor-market value." Areas of focus in Gates' Postsecondary Success program include making it:

  • Personalized, with a focus on using “technology to help colleges and universities educate students more effectively, measure student understanding in real time, and respond to students’ needs” in order to “support more students at a lower cost and with better learning outcomes.”
  • Flexible. Gates wants to help students “transition more easily between high school and college, between colleges, and out of college into a sustainable career.” Through this focus area, the funder wants to “align high school graduation and college-entry standards.” Gates also “supports efforts to make course credits more easily transferable between colleges.”
  • Clear. This area of focus involves “better data collection about student achievement and institutional performance, which can help inform students’ college choices, inform prospective employers about student skills, and provide policymakers and institutions with information to help improve outcomes and manage costs.”
  • Affordable. The funder supports programs that “focus financial aid programs on the neediest students.”
  • Institutional Partnerships. Through this area, Gates “supports efforts by institutions involved in higher education better transform their educational and business models to meet the needs of low-income and first-generation college students.” The foundation does this through “research and evaluation tools” and “connect[ing] them with other institutions that share their goals.”

    The themes in these focus areas include making college more affordable, especially for disadvantaged students, and increasing the number of students who earn postsecondary credentials. This includes not only bachelor's degrees, but also associate degrees from community colleges. 

    New technologies figure prominently into the methodology here, as do plans to improve methods for appraising student performance. Beneficiaries of this initiative include online remedial course programs and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC's). Gates has also supported nontraditional students, those for instance that are older or balancing family obligations with work and school. Also appealing to the foundation in this subprogram are guidance and counseling systems for students to help them find financial aid and manage their loans, as well as a variety of merit-based scholarship programs for students. Past grants can be reviewed via the foundation’s Awarded Grants database.

    Through its College Ready Education and Postsecondary Success programs, Gates has awarded hundreds of grants each year, ranging in size from a few hundred to millions of dollars, so there's room for grantees both large and small. In general, though, Gates contacts organizations to solicit grant applications. While this can make it difficult for first-time grantseekers to obtain funding, the funder lists RFPs through its Grant Opportunities page.


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