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Melinda Gates Urges Better Job Training as Community Colleges Innovate, Adapt

October 5, 2010 at 6:10 PM EDT
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President Obama shone a spotlight on community colleges Tuesday as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced that it would donate $35 million to help improve graduation rates and job-training programs. Philanthropist Melinda Gates talks to Judy Woodruff about the effort.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: President Obama shined a spotlight on community colleges today, as he drew a direct line from the education these schools provide to the country’s economic recovery.

(APPLAUSE)

At a White House summit today, President Obama urged a much greater role for community colleges. He said two-year schools can help raise the percentage of young people earning college degrees. The U.S. currently ranks ninth among all nations.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: By 2020, America will once again lead the world in producing college graduates. And I believe community colleges will play a huge part in meeting this goal by producing an additional five million degrees and certificates in the next 10 years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president has already pushed through more money for community colleges. That is critical, as many schools struggle with lack of funding, high dropout rates, and climbing enrollments. At today’s summit, Jill Biden, wife of the vice president and a community college professor herself, said the schools are crucial, especially in tough times.

JILL BIDEN, Wife of Vice President Joe Biden: They’re giving hope to families who thought the American dream was slipping away. They are equipping Americans with the skills and expertise that are relevant to the emerging jobs of the future. They’re opening doors for the middle class at a time when the middle class has seen so many doors closed to them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The administration has also announced an initiative to help community college grads find work with major corporations like McDonald’s and The Gap, among others.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced today that it will donate $35 million worth of grants to help improve graduation rates at U.S. community colleges. For the record, the foundation funds the NewsHour’s global health coverage.

Its co-founder and co-chair Melinda Gates was at today’s White House ceremony, and she joins us now. It’s good to see you.

MELINDA GATES, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: Thank you. Nice to see you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you for being with us.First of all, why are community colleges getting this attention right now?

MELINDA GATES: Well, I think it’s so important to have this conversation as a nation, to realize that eight million students go through community colleges.

And I think, as a nation, so often, we think about college being those elite four-year institutions, when, in fact, so many kids today, so many students are really older, and really are going through college in a nontraditional way. So, if we’re going to link education to the jobs of the future, we really have to talk about community colleges.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, explain what this program is that the — that your foundation, the Gates Foundation, has set up to give a boost to these schools.

MELINDA GATES: Well, we’re looking at the nine states that educate via community colleges the majority of low-income and minority students.

And we’re saying to them, if — there’s this $35 million of funding that is available. And if you can help sort through the best way to take the kids when they come to the front door of your community college and help them complete community college, we have money available to do that.

So, that means thing like helping the kids really with a guidance counselor figuring out their course of study, helping them if they need remediation in mathematics to not do it in a traditional way, but only to remediate what the student doesn’t remember maybe from sophomore year, or to use technology in new ways, to have hybrid learning, so students who are strapped for cash and have two jobs they’re holding down and have a child, which many of these do, don’t have to come to the college campus every day. They can do some learning with technology at home or on their job, and then later come to the campus.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But how much of a funding gap exists out there? We know that, when President Obama came into office, he was looking for $12 billion. He ended up, I guess, with only $2 billion, because it all — it got caught up in the health care reform debate. How much of a gap is there out there for these schools?

MELINDA GATES: Well, some of the community colleges are absolutely struggling. And it really has to do with the state funding that goes to community colleges.

But what the federal government can do is to stimulate, stimulate innovation in community college to say, how can you use technology in new ways, which is a lot what they’re doing in the high school system, right? In the high school system, the states fund the high schools, but the federal government comes in with funds that stimulate innovation.

That’s what’s happening there. But what the community colleges are finding, they spend $2 billion a year remediating students who don’t remember what they learned in math or didn’t learn it well enough in math or science and English. They’re spending $2 billion to remediate. And they’re losing the vast majority of students right there in that first year.

If they can repurpose those dollars in smarter ways to really just remediate what the students don’t know or need to know for their course of study, there’s a lot of money they can actually free up.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And — and what sort of skills are we talking about, Melinda Gates, that — that these young people — or older people, for that matter — we know that older people are going back to school to get their education.

What sort of skills can they pick up that they might not otherwise get?

MELINDA GATES: Well, we know, in the economy today, that you have the earning potential — if you earn something beyond a high school diploma — we know that most of the jobs in 2018, 63 percent of those jobs are going to require something greater than a high school degree.

We also know your earning potential is much higher if you earn a two-year or four-year degree. So, if you want to go back to school and you want to be a nurse or a phlebotomist or a pharmacist, you want to be in these health care jobs that exist, you need to go get a different kind of a degree or a certificate.

If you want to participate in the green technology that’s happening, if you want to be a manager of people who install solar panels or part of the wind farming, you really need to have some technical expertise. And these community colleges adapt and go right around those industries and train people for exactly those types of jobs, which exist in the economy today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, just quickly, since these schools have been through a lean period, are they equipped right now to train these people for those jobs?

MELINDA GATES: Well, one of the things I think the community colleges do the best is, they innovate very quickly. So, as soon as they see wind farming coming into their area, which this is happening in the Northwest, where I live, they will immediately adapt.

They will close other programs where they aren’t seeing the jobs for their students, and they will reopen with a new program. And that’s one of the great things they can do. It means they can adapt really quickly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I have to ask you this. And that is, how confident are you? You’re somebody who talks to people about the economy all the time. Are there going jobs for these young people once they do work their way through these community college programs?

MELINDA GATES: I think absolutely, because, again, we know that, if you only have a high school degree, the unemployment rate is much higher. It’s over 10 percent if you only have a high school degree. If you have a four-year degree, the unemployment rate is less than 5 percent.

So, we know these jobs exist. We just have to make sure people get the retraining to go in them. So, I’m — I’m very optimistic of what students can learn and how they can adapt in the economy today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what more is needed at this point? There was a summit at the White House. Your foundation, the Gates Foundation, is making this gift. What else is needed to give these schools what they need?

MELINDA GATES: Well, I think what’s happened is, there’s been a start of a conversation.

The community college presidents have — they convene once a year. They had convened in the last two years several times to get together to talk about what’s really working. So, there were some great ideas today about financial aid. It’s hard to find financial aid officers to put in your community college if they’re strapped for cash.

But there’s great ways to do that in a virtual system. Connecticut has a fantastic system. So, I think it’s the community college presidents getting together and figuring out, where is the innovation happening, how do we not recreate the wheel, and what do we still need to do together, and then disseminate those ideas. And I think that’s exactly what they will do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Melinda Gates with the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, thank you very much for coming by.

MELINDA GATES: Thanks, Judy. Bye.