published Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

Gates and area students connect

Bill Gates is the billionaire whose business acumen -- think Microsoft -- and whose decision made in conjunction with his wife, to use a goodly portion of his wealth to promote worthy causes on grand scale, have helped make his name one of the most recognizable on the planet. So he would seem to have little in common with five area high school students. That assumption is wrong. Gates, through one of his widely praised philanthropic endeavors, has a connection with each of them.

Matthew Chen, of Baylor; Monica Maldonado and Hira Quireshi of Dalton High School; Sam Sadowitz of Soddy-Daisy High School; and Jose Cruz of McCallie, are linked to Gates by their designation as 2012 Gates Millennium Scholars. Each earned one of the 1,000 higher education scholarships funded by a $1.6 billion grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The award is prestigious. More than 20,000 students applied for grants; only 1,000 were selected, including 10 from Tennessee and 88 from Georgia.

The nationwide screening process for the grants, designed to help low-income and minority students with demonstrated academic and leadership skills and Pell Grant eligibility, is rigorous. It should be. The scholarships cover all undergraduate costs as long as awardees make "satisfactory academic progress" toward a baccalaureate degree. A four-year degree, however, is not the limit of the scholarship.

Millennium winners also can obtain full funding for a graduate degree if they study science, education, computer science, public health, engineering, mathematics or additional fields in which minorities are historically underrepresented. If the goal of the Gates Foundation is to encourage the best and brightest of the nation's minority population to attend and thrive in college, that goal, it seems, is being met.

Most recipients of the scholarships that were first awarded in 1999 have proved to be highly successful students. According to Gates officials, the five-year graduation rates for Millennium Scholars is about 80 percent. That's more than 20 percentage points higher than recent graduation rates for all students in public four-year colleges.

Millennium Scholars generally are from families where education is a cherished commodity, but where money to pay for it is almost never available. Indeed, many of the 2012 winners are from families in which parents did not graduate from high school. With help from Gates, the newly designated scholars can fulfill their own and their parents' dreams for higher education.

The Gates Foundation's mission is straightforward. An executive says that "education continues to be the best pathway to opportunity ..." and that the Gates Millennium program and others "provide students who have the will to get postsecondary education with a way to get one." The Gates' decision to facilitate that endeavor on a large scale is a wise and worthy one.

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