Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Postsecondary Success

August 14, 2017

Want More Students to Finish? Focus on the Start.

Policy and Advocacy Priorities

By Dan Greenstein

I’m just now sending my oldest child back to college for his sophomore year, which has caused me to pause and reflect about what we’ve both learned from the experience of his freshman year. It also got me to thinking about the approximately 25 percent of students who won’t be returning to classes this fall. Like my son, they started out last fall excited and a little nervous about the adventure ahead. But unlike Michael, they hit obstacles that led them off the path to their goals. And unfortunately, a disproportionate number of those students are low-income and first-generation students, students of color, and working adults.

So how do we flip this script? What will it take to see more of our students make the trip back for their second year? I believe the solution reflects a combination of attitude, skill, and will.

Let’s start with attitude. One of the most persistent myths that hurts our students is that stopping out or dropping out of college is totally on the student, an indication that they are not “college material.” For many students, the issue is one of navigation. They have the ability and drive to succeed in college, but get tripped up in a maze of academic and administrative hurdles that distract them from their primary focus – learning. In fact, a majority of Americans believe that colleges and universities do have a role to play in helping more students make it to the finish line.

That brings us to the skill part. Over the past decade, we as a field have learned a lot about the importance of how and where students start their college experience as a predictor of their persistence and success. For example, only one in 10 community college students who enroll in remedial courses have a degree three years later. That is why we as a foundation have supported efforts to redesign remedial education, strengthen advising, and improve the quality and availability of data about students’ pathways.

It is also why I am excited about today’s launch of Strong Start to Finish, a national campaign that is led by the Education Commission of the States and is designed to take what we know about better equipping all students for success as they transition into college. The campaign will work with select states and institutions on widespread adoption and implementation of core principles that have been shown to help more students make it to and through those all-important introductory courses.

Strong Start to Finish will also give us some insight into the question of will – where do we see real desire to take on higher education’s bent toward celebrating exclusion over inclusion, making tough choices that put clear student pathways at the center of institutional priorities? We are seeing encouraging signs on that front, with the California State University system announcing major changes to its remedial education policies and legislators in Texas passing a law that mandates the use of co-requisite remediation in the state’s colleges and universities. But there is still much more work to be done.

This time next year, I hope to be sending my son off for his third year of college. And I also hope that through the work of Strong Start to Finish and related efforts, we will have more stories of students continuing their journey to a credential.

Dan Greenstein is the director of Postsecondary Success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.