Gates Foundation supports college readiness apps

More than half of community college students require a remedial class.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is awarding upwards of $100,000 to developers who propose apps and online tools that help high school students prepare for college, fund their schooling, and complete the sometimes circuitous application process.

The College Knowledge Challenge started Sept. 27 at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., where 100 developers gathered for a “hack-a-thon”–an effort to create useful technologies aimed at better preparing incoming college students as the need for remedial classes continues to rise across the U.S.

Anyone can submit a proposal to the Gates Foundation through the organization’s website. Winners of the $2.5 million grant competition will be announced in January, according to the foundation.

Foundation officials said they would encourage web-based tools that incorporated social media platforms like Facebook, where low-income and first-generation college students might find a supportive academic peer group.

Other apps might help incoming students construct a four-year plan toward college graduation. Students from College Summit Northern California partner high schools will serve as advisers to the competition’s app developers.

The foundation has for years funded efforts to cut down on the growing need for remedial education in colleges and universities. Students don’t earn course credits in remedial classes, making higher education more expensive for tens of thousands of freshmen.

An ideal application would target college students who most often start their campus careers mired in remedial courses, said J.B. Schramm, founder and CEO of College Summit, a group working alongside the Gates Foundation in the College Knowledge Challenge.

“First generation and low-income families typically do not have access to the information, coaching, and support needed to navigate the college-going process,” said Frome. “A platform of electronic tools dedicated to confronting and solving the obstacles to postsecondary navigation and success is an exciting potential opportunity for all students, regardless of their economic circumstances.”

At the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV), for instance, there will be more than 1,000 freshmen unprepared for basic college-level math courses this year. Students who require remedial help are far less likely to graduate from college within six years, according to national statistics.

In North Carolina, the percentage of high school graduates who required at least one remedial class increased for the third consecutive year, even as state high school graduation rates have jumped by nearly 10 points since 2006.

A U.S. Department of Education (ED) report released last year said that as much as 60 percent of incoming community college students enroll “in at least one developmental education course to bring their reading, writing, and mathematics skills up to college level.”

Developmental classes that help new community college students catch up with their peers can be critical to earning a degree, according to the ED report, but remedial education “may not improve students’ persistence or completion rates and, in some cases, may actually hinder their progress toward educational goals.”

At an education conference at Montgomery College in Maryland last year, early intervention was stressed by several speakers who addressed remedial classes in community colleges.

College officials and policy analysts said summer bridge programs would help high school students prepare for college without having to enroll in non-credit-bearing remedial courses.

Winners of the College Knowledge Challenge will be judged by officials from the College Summit, the King Center Charter School, Facebook, and the Gates Foundation, and a panel of nationally known experts in education and technology.

Thirty entrants will receive grant money.

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