Nearly two decades ago, Bill Gates, was sitting in a boardroom when he realized there wasn’t a single person of color in the meeting. It wasn’t the first time he’d found himself in a room like that—but, that day, he started thinking about what he could do to make it one of the last.
As both Melinda and Bill began to learn more, they concluded that achieving greater diversity in future leaders had to begin with promoting greater diversity in postsecondary education. Diversifying postsecondary education, in turn, would require addressing the financial barrier between high achieving minority students and their dreams of college.
With that, the Gates Millennium Scholars (GMS) program was born.
The plan was to award 20 cohorts—or classes—of scholars a “last dollar scholarship” that would cover the full cost of college through an advanced degree: tuition, room and board, and books, and then track those students throughout their college careers and beyond. (Because of the way we structured the program, the first year of the scholarship had four cohorts.)
Instead of waiting for applicants to come to us, we went to them. We worked with the United Negro College Fund(UNCF) as our administrative partner. They, in turn, established relationships with American Indian Graduate Center Scholars, the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, and the Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund to seek out talented minority students with both academic and leadership promise, but also significant financial need. Together, these organizations did a fantastic job not only seeking out applicants, but getting entire communities excited about the idea of going to college. The program wouldn’t be nearly the success it has been, and the future would not be nearly as bright as it is, without the dedication of these partners.
Every April for the past 16 years, 1,000 students of those applicants have received what Millennium Scholars call “the big packet”—the envelope informing them they have been selected for the program.
Now, as this program draws closer to the selection of the final cohort of Gates Millennium Scholars (in 2016), it’s a fitting time to reflect on what the scholarship has accomplished, what we’ve learned from it, and what we can do to further increase college completion for minority students.
When we first began the program, fewer than half of all low-income, high achieving high school graduates enrolled in a four-year college. That meant more than 400,000 students each year—many of them students of color—had the motivation to go to college, but not the means.
With this scholarship, we set out to demonstrate that if we could clear the financial barriers to college for high-achieving low-income minority students, they could succeed and graduate from elite colleges and universities at the same rate as anyone else.
Fifteen years, $1.6 billion, and 18,000 students later, we can say with confidence that they can. Gates Millennium Scholars graduate college at a rate of 90%, not just equaling their affluent peers, but in many cases exceeding them.
Almost every scholar you talk to will tell you that the scholarship changed his or her life—and we’re already seeing GMS alumni who are changing the world. Past Millennium Scholars include Dr. Walt Basio, who has been recognized by the National Science Foundation for his research on epilepsy, Steve Arounsack, who is nationally recognized for his use of digital media to conduct ethnographic research, Dr. Christina Gilchrist who is the vice president for operations at Omega medical research, and my colleague Juan Sanchez, who is working to ensure all students in this country have the same access to education he had. And these are just four success stories of thousands.
We always expected that, given the opportunity, these scholars would succeed in their academics and careers. One of the things we didn’t anticipate was how much each scholar would become an advocate, not just for the program, but for college in general. GMS alumni are helping to promote—and strengthen—the college-going culture in minority communities.
And that’s important. Because we don’t just want 1,000 students a year graduating with quality options. We want every single student graduating ready and equipped for college and a career. And so the end of this program does not signal the end of this movement. On the contrary: its success shows us the need for continuing efforts.
While the scholarship has demonstrated everything we hoped it would, we know there are still young people out there who don’t pursue college because they simply don’t have the money, and don’t complete a college degree for a whole host of reasons.
At the Gates Foundation, we’re working on programs to encourage postsecondary success in many different ways. For example, we’re trying to improve students’ success and the quality of education (while also bringing down cost) through the use of new technologies to allow greater student support and flexibility. We’re exploring new learning models, like MIT’s “flipped-classroom,” which allows low-income students to watch online lectures at home and use classroom time for homework help. We’re also making college completion easier by enabling students to “bank” credits earned at community college and elsewhere.
We’re also in the development phase of a new scholarship, and we’ll keep you posted on that as details become available.
The Gates Millennium Scholars have shown us what is possible. Now we must continue the work of turning possibility into reality for the next generation of students.