Gates Foundation Pushes Technology for College Preparedness

The foundation announced this week that $20 million is up for grabs for innovators in tech for education.

Library with Internet access


The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced this week that $20 million is up for grabs for education innovations in a new push to prepare high school students for college. The Gates Foundation announced a request for proposals for its “Next Generation Learning Challenges” from innovative programs that have a working technological or online component and a sound educational intervention to put the technologies to use in the service of preparing high school students for college. The foundation has previously focused on education in low-income, marginalized communities, but this is the first time the foundation is focused explicitly on educational technologies for college preparation.

“We’re really excited about technology in education,” Gates Foundation Senior Program Officer, Josh Jarrett, tells Fast Company. A former software entrepreneur and former McKinsey consultant with a Harvard MBA, Jarrett has a thing or two to say about innovation in technology and education.

With 63% of jobs at the end of the decade requiring a higher degree, says Jarrett, there is an urgent need for innovation in college preparedness programs.

The foundation is looking to invest in programs that center not only around innovators, but also adopters. In other words, the foundation wants to see that there is a ready and eager market for the innovations they invest in, since currently “there’s not an efficient marketplace for that,” Jarrett says. Specifically, the three criteria for investment are student outcomes, scalability, and financial sustainability.

One Laptop Per Child may come immediately to mind for some readers, but “what you do with the hardware is most important in terms of outcomes,” Jarrett says. “We’re investing in interventions, rather than infrastructure.”

The Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon, for example, is a current Gates investee that uses digital tutors and targeted face-to-face learning and what used to take, say, 10 weeks for a student to learn a curriculum, it now only takes five weeks, effectively “doubling the pace of learning,” says Jarrett.


The Signals Program at Purdue is another successful, innovative example–the program uses learning analytics and predictive models to help students understand how they’re doing in class. Not only that, but teachers openly share with students when it looks like they’re going to fail and that gives students the extra push they need to focus and succeed. The model uses a red, yellow, and green signaling system and has increased success rates by 50%.

And while the goal of the new initiative is to establish visible benefits in the U.S., applicants can be from anywhere. “This is an opportunity for cross-pollination across countries,” says Jarrett. The foundation is highly motivated to help innovators connect with each other–a startup applicant from India, for example, could be matched up with a U.S.-based partner to help maximize social outcomes and fit the foundation’s criteria better.

“We’re very optimistic. We look forward to drawing out the great work in the field that helps students get to completion,” says Jarrett. And with a direct mandate from Bill and Melinda, it’s no wonder that technology will play a central role in the new push.

[Image: Gates Foundation]

About the author

Jenara is an overseas reporter for Fast Company and a freelance writer/producer in Asia, regularly on CNNGo, and a graduate of Harvard and UC Berkeley.