Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Postsecondary Success

Nate SimpsonProgram Officer Nate Simpson often reflects upon his first semester at Morehouse College, a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in Atlanta.

“My English professor told us, ‘If I read three mistakes in your paper, it’s an automatic F, and I’m not going to read the rest,’” Simpson recalled. Nonetheless, Simpson submitted his first essay confident he would receive an A.

Several days later, the professor wrote the breakdown of grades on the board before returning the papers: 13 Fs, three Bs, and one A.

“I’m thinking, I’m probably in the B grade,” said Simpson. “Lo and behold, I was one of the Fs.”

Shortly after that, the professor met with Simpson one-on-one and explained what was needed to earn an A. Simpson not only followed through, but also used that experience as a catalyst for success for the rest of his academic and professional career. Simpson, a child of two public servants from Chicago’s South Side, also credits Morehouse with instilling in him the recognition that the path to success is possible for a person of a color.

Morehouse offered not only an outstanding academic and campus life experience, but also additional motivation and advice on how to carry oneself for future leadership roles, guidance on how to be a high performing professional, and tips on negotiation tactics. These lessons propelled him as he went on to receive a Master’s of Education in Student Affairs from Loyola University Chicago – a university where he was able to enhance his experience and grow his knowledge and passion for students.  It was also a different kind of university that didn’t quite have the same support structure and guidance as Morehouse.

“What made Morehouse unique was they not only told you what you produced had to be strong, but they also gave you the support to be excellent,” he said. “The type of support that is available at HBCUs, you don’t even realize it’s missing or that you wanted it until you see it and experience it. The exposure to classmates, the curriculum, and the skills taught are essential because there are higher expectations you need to meet as a man of color.”

Morehouse, and the community cultivated by its students, staff and faculty, heightened Simpson’s desire to help others reach that bar as well. As Simpson explains, every person needs a strong “village” around them for support: allies to offer encouragement and constructive criticism. He believes that building such communities and improving an understanding of diverse students among policymakers and administrators can help everyone along the path toward obtaining a degree or credential.

“What made Morehouse unique was they not only told you what you produced had to be strong, but they also gave you the support to be excellent,” he said. “The type of support that is available at HBCUs, you don’t even realize it’s missing or that you wanted it until you see it and experience it. The exposure to classmates, the curriculum, and the skills taught are essential because there are higher expectations you need to meet as a man of color.”

After receiving his master’s degree, Simpson quickly rose through the ranks through a number of different positions at George Mason University, Northwestern University, City Colleges of Chicago, and Dallas County Community College District. These roles afforded him the opportunity to advocate for students, and particularly students of color, often in settings where he was the only person able to provide that perspective. Simpson recalls the importance of bringing that lens to discussions with other administrators as they approached specific issues or decisions that would ultimately affect all students on campus.

“There should be space for someone in the room who can bring experience and ask deep questions, keeping the unique life situation of today’s students in mind,” said Simpson. “I could provide that perspective and insight.”

The opportunity to enact change on a larger scale inspired him to move to Seattle and join the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2016. Simpson equates the foundation and the way it operates to that of a giant research institution, with a multitude of departments throughout the country that he and other program officers are seeking to support and strengthen so more students can succeed. At the foundation, he is supporting the Postsecondary Success strategy around “Pathways” to improve rates of college completion, transfer, and attainment of jobs with value in the labor market — and to achieve equity in those outcomes. The program aims to manage and sustain large-scale transformational change, by helping students get on and stay on a path toward completing a degree or credential.

Further, Simpson brings an awareness of the power of HBCUs in helping students, and he believes the foundation’s understanding of the unique and important work of HBCUs continues to grow. Specifically, the foundation has highlighted how Johnson C. Smith and Delaware State Universities provide the support needed to bridge the achievement gap. Both institutions collect and analyze data to help students throughout their college careers. For example, if a student taking a psychology quiz gets a failing grade, it triggers an email or phone call from a counselor to find out what went wrong and what supports would be useful. Additionally, Delaware State uses predictive analytics to identify students who are considered most likely to drop out—based on SAT scores, financial background, and other factors—and proactively gives them the support they need to be prepared for success.

Encouraging more low-income and first-generation college students to get college degrees is critical—not just for the students themselves, but for the health of America’s economy. By 2025, two-thirds of all jobs in the US will require education beyond high school. At the current rate the US is producing college graduates, however, the country is expected to face a shortfall of 11 million skilled workers to fill those roles.

The urgent need for more postsecondary graduates motivates Simpson’s work to help today’s college students overcome challenges in and out of the classroom. He describes the experience of one student at City Colleges of Chicago who, incidentally, was also deaf and a dancer.

“He was super driven,” said Simpson. “Yet, he had been missing class.”

Simpson investigated the issue and discovered that the student was having a conflict with his foster mom and had no place to stay, which resulted in him missing meals and, ultimately, not making it to class.

The incident helped inform the realization that housing insecurity is a major barrier to academic success for too many students. “We made sure he was connected to an advisor,” said Simpson.  “Someone to whom he could go to for guidance to show him that there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

“There are so many pearls and diamonds who are out there who aren’t achieving,” said Simpson. “And they’re just needing the village to help them get where they need to go. There’s a solution for so many difficulties that we can provide to everyone: it’s education.”

Read more of the “People Behind Postsecondary Success” series: