DENIED: Gates Foundation Retracts Completion Grant from Texas Community Colleges

Much to the surprise of faculty and students alike, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pulled a grant designed to help students in community colleges complete their degrees from the Lone Star College System in Texas, which includes the Dallas County Community College District, El Paso Community College, and South Texas College. The Lone Stone College system was scheduled to receive $5.3 million for a program called Completion by Design, but received less than a million of the promised funds.

Completion by Design, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, gives grants to groups of community colleges in four states to collaborate in keeping more low-income students in school and complete their education. It focuses on support and motivation tools from all aspects of the college experience, from orientation and registration to coursework and graduation. (Read director of U.S. programs Allan Golston's IP profile). The colleges coordinate activities and courses together, as well as receive assistance from Gates Foundation experts. They analyze student data to pinpoint where they need the most help, and identify strategies to achieve retention goals. (See Gates Foundation: Grants for Community Colleges).

The highest level Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation officials declined requests for comments, but Suzanne Walsh, a program officer, told Inside Higher Ed that the program, which includes a variety of phases of technical assistance and support both for college staff and for students, is not guaranteed from phase to phase. Other speculate that the size and complexity of the Texas system made it difficult to do the kind of tight-knit collaboration and data collection required for Completion by Design. Whatever the reason, it came as a shock to Richard Carpenter, the chancellor of the Lone Star College system, who said in a letter to faculty that the decision "reflects an unfortunate lack of commitment to the goal of increasing student success and completion at community colleges in Texas."

For many low-income students, community colleges are the less-expensive way to obtain at least an associate's degree, if not a stepping stone to a bachelor's. Compared to decades of debt, a community college education can be a life-saver, but they often fail to garner the funding and publicity necessary to maintain rigorous programs. Various politicians, including President Obama, have mentioned the importance of community colleges as a way to make Americans of all income levels more competitive in the job market. But unless the funding and expertise are available, these sentiments will remain just that.  

As for the future of Texas's efforts, community college officials say they remain committed to fulfilling the goals of the program, despite the loss of funding. If there's any bright side, the loss serves as encouragement to rethink, reorganize, and work even harder. Kay McClenney, an Texas-based expert on community colleges, called the reaction an "entirely Texas," one, for the tenacity of the colleges will continue anyway.