Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Breaking Through the Barriers to Postsecondary Education

June 21, 2012

Despite huge challenges in postsecondary education, there is reason to hope. This week, the foundation unveiled a suite of grants that will help address some of the sector’s seemingly intractable problems: skyrocketing tuition, persistently low completion rates, continued budget cuts and diminished seat capacity. Totaling $9 million, these grants support a range of options to earn a credential with value in the labor market without incurring significant debt:

  • $3.3 million to EDUCAUSE for four winners of the Next Generation Learning Challenges' latest RFP. 
  • $3 million to MyCollege Foundation to establish a non-profit college that will blend adaptive online learning solutions with a suite of services to enable students to earn high-quality college degrees at a low cost.
  • $1 million to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to develop and offer a new, free prototype computer science online course.
  • $1 million to the Research Foundation of the City University of New York (CUNY) to support the launch of the New Community College (NCC) at CUNY, a bold endeavor to create the first new CUNY college in four decades.
    • $500,000 to University of the People (UoPeople) to support the pursuit of accreditation at the world’s first tuition-free, non-profit, online academic institution dedicated to opening access to higher education globally.
    • $450,000 to the League for Innovation in the Community College to develop and pilot a national consortium of leading online two- and four-year institutions called Learning First.

Access, cost and quality have been referred to as the “iron triangle”—a change in any one factor affects the other two. In other words, delivering quality education to more students at a lower cost is nearly impossible, at least as conceived within the confines of today’s postsecondary institution.

However, we are very optimistic about the results that fundamental changes in the delivery model of education can deliver. We are inspired by an emerging set of institutions and degree programs that are producing dramatic improvements in low-income young adult success at a lower cost. This set of institutions, which are both nonprofit and for-profit, focuses on meeting non-traditional—particularly low-income—student needs and employs innovative pedagogical and business practices in order to offer high quality and affordable postsecondary credentials. 

We don’t yet know the secret recipe to ensure a better education system that gives every single student a genuine chance at completing a quality postsecondary degree. However, we do know the field needs to innovate, and these grants and other programs like them will help us all learn what works and what doesn’t as we collectively endeavor to support student success.

Challenges like these – and the potential impact on students’ futures – are what truly motivate us to continue working towards innovative and lasting solutions. Together, we can walk in the right direction.

To learn more about the breakthrough learning models that these grantees and others are working on, please visit

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