College Gateway

Posted Dec. 10, 2008, at 7:31 p.m.

Failing to complete a college degree or certificate program by one’s mid-20s is one of those fateful forks in the road. For those young people of low-income backgrounds, not taking the college fork not only means significantly less earning power, but it increases the chances of remaining impoverished.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation plans to “spend several hundred million dollars over the next five years to double the number of low-income young people who complete a college degree or certificate program by age 26,” according to philanthropy.com. The aim is to help an additional 250,000 people each year attend college.

More than half of the new jobs created in the United States will require more than a high school diploma, Melinda Gates said.

Next year, the Gates Foundation will announce the eight to 10 states it will select for participation in the initiative, and it will initially focus on community colleges. Maine would be a good fit for the initiative, John Fitzsimmons, president of the state’s community college program, believes.

The community college system is a key pathway for lower-income people to earn a degree or certificate, and in Maine, it is growing in leaps and bounds. From 1997 to 2007, community college enrollment more than doubled, from 5,066 to 11,682. And Maine’s system retains students at a rate of nearly 50 percent, more than double what is seen in other states.

“The vast majority of our students are low-income,” Mr. Fitzsimmons said, so Gates Foundation grants would serve a great number.

The age 26 cutoff troubled some groups attending the announcement event hosted by the Gates foundation. But as pleased as Mr. Fitzsimmons is with the 40-, 50- and 60-year-olds who attend classes in the community-college system, he agrees that up to age 26 “is the right age to be pushing to make a difference.” After that age, many people have settled into jobs, relationships and housing and it is often very difficult to fit the rigors of college into those very full lives. Conversely, those in their early 20s may have worked at enough jobs to learn that many are dead ends, and they have witnessed their more educated peers get promoted and earn more money.

Maine also faces an educational gender gap, Mr. Fitzsimmons said. The female-to-male ratio of college students is the highest in the country. Helping young men pay for college could help reduce that ratio.

The power of a college degree or certificate to break the generational cycles of poverty is also worth highlighting.

“Completing high school ready for college is a key transition point in the path out of poverty,” Melinda Gates said, according to philanthropy.com. “A second transition is earning a post secondary credential with value in the workplace. If young people fail to make the first transition, it’s unlikely they will make the second. If they fail to make the second, it’s likely they will be poor.”

Twenty years ago, the U.S. was first in the world in the percentage of those 25-34 who held a post secondary degree or certificate, but has dropped to 10th place. In fiscally lean times, it’s encouraging to see entrepreneurs like the Gateses invest in restoring access to education.

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