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Bill Gates is On to Something

President & CEO, America's Promise Alliance

I was a bit startled when I read Bill Gates’s post on LinkedIn early this morning. I know that he has long been deeply concerned about access to and success in college, and I admire his thinking and work in this area. But he and his foundation have often tended toward technological solutions.  

So I was surprised — and delighted — to see that in his column, “Meeting Students Where They Are,” he instead focused on the centrality of relationships as the crucial intervention to help more young people successfully complete college.

“A student from a wealthy family in the U.S.,” Gates writes, “is eight times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree by age 24 than a student from a low-income family.”

The problem isn’t a shortage of desire or aspiration. “The problem is that too many drop out before completing their degrees, especially students from low-income families.”

Research has told us that most young people at risk of leaving high school or college are growing up in challenging circumstances. They confront a world of challenges from housing to transportation, health to cash, low expectations to lack of role models.

Relationships MatterWhat they want and need, more than anything, is a web of support from caring adults and peers. They need people to lean on and answer to, people to encourage them, believe in them and expect them to succeed, hold them to high standards and guide them through tough situations.

Gates cites two historically black colleges, Johnson C. Smith and Delaware State University, as standouts “when it comes to recruiting at-risk students, keeping them in school, and giving them the support they need to graduate.”

And Gates calls out the secret to the progress at these two schools: They accept students based on potential not past performance. They identify those most at risk and provide support before problems arise. And they provide mentors, tutors and counselors who check in regularly, especially in the first year.

It’s simple but not easy, labor-intensive and costly. So Gates asks, “Why not let the students who can’t make it drop out?” Delaware State University staff told him that it “actually costs a university more – in lost tuition – to allow a student to drop out than it does to pay for the support needed to help retain that student.”

By the way, that’s true for high school students, too. The Arizona Mayors’ Education Roundtable just published a report showing that “each dropout in Arizona produces $421,280 in economic losses over his or her lifetime.”

These losses come from decreased earnings and increased public and private expenses for health, crime and welfare, and they account for only a single young person without a diploma.

The cumulative costs are much greater. Roughly 18,100 young people didn’t get their high school diplomas in Arizona in 2012, which amounted to a total of $7.6 billion in economic losses for the state—more than it spends on K-12 education each year.

We can help reduce those losses and start to produce huge gains – for individuals, families, states and the nation – by increasing the strength, number and nature of relationships in young people’s lives.

It doesn’t even have to be hard. Young people told us that the small stuff matters – listening without judgment; asking simple, sincere questions; providing a lunch or a ride; offering tutoring for an upcoming test or coaching for a tough conversation.

As one young woman said in a recent article about the relationships in her life, “That’s what young people like me need — more adults who won’t give up on us, so that we don’t give up on ourselves.”

I’ve admired Bill Gates's ideas and philanthropy for a long time, but today I am particularly happy that he has landed on perhaps the most powerful and scalable solution of all. By always putting relationships at the center, we can create the conditions in which many more young people graduate from high school and college, prepared to thrive in work, life and community.  

For specific recommendations, video and discussion guides, check out Don’t Quit on Me: What Young People Say About the Power of Relationships.

For more on the high school graduation gaps between low-income students and non-low-income students, see the 2016 Building a Grad Nation Data Brief

*First photograph courtesy of Communities in Schools (CIS).

John Gomperts is the president & CEO of America’s Promise Alliance, the nation’s largest partnership of organizations, communities and individuals committed to improving the lives of young people, and leader of the GradNation campaign.