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Grant Supports UC Merced Effort to Improve College Readiness in Valley

February 26, 2024
Orquidea Largo and Zenaida Aguirre-Muñoz are seen in side-by-side images.
Interim Associate Vice Chancellor Orquidea Largo, left, and Professor Zenaida Aguirre-Muñoz will lead research efforts on the "Advancing Educational Opportunities in California" project.

A significant grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will advance UC Merced's efforts to create a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of college readiness among high-school students in the San Joaquin Valley, particularly those from underrepresented and socioeconomically diverse backgrounds.

"Advancing Educational Opportunities in California" is a two-year project led by Professor Zenaida Aguirre-Muñoz focused on surveying and analyzing college-readiness data, policies and infrastructure to determine how certain academic pathways and access disparities impact student populations — including Latinx, Black, Native American and English learners — and their preparedness for higher education.

The $500,000 grant in support of the project is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's first award to UC Merced.

"High-school students in this region, on average, encounter more barriers in accessing dual enrollment or AP (Advanced Placement) courses compared to students in other areas of California," explained Aguirre-Muñoz.

"This grant funding will contribute valuable insights and practical solutions that can shape state policies aimed at addressing the persistent disparities in equity and academic achievement, which hinder the upward mobility of underrepresented, minority students as they progress through high school," she said.

Existing data systems developed through the UC Merced Center for Educational Partnerships (CEP) will help inform the study, particularly in the area of opportunity disparities among traditionally underrepresented and first-generation students in the San Joaquin Valley. The project will also help build connections between CEP and UC Merced's emerging Center for Research, Equity, Anti-Racism and Transformative Engagement(s) (CREATEs), which aims to leverage partnerships that enhance the ways in which vulnerable student groups receive timely academic, social and emotional support services responsive to their specific needs.

"Consistent with UC Merced's strategic objectives, we are dedicated to advancing educational research firmly rooted in the cultural richness of our students," said Aguirre-Muñoz. "In both the San Joaquin Valley and beyond, there is a pressing need for evidence-based policies to ensure equal opportunities for access to both community colleges and four-year institutions. This work will further elevate UC Merced as a leader in this area."

In addition to Aguirre-Muñoz, the Advancing Educational Opportunities in California team includes project Co-Principal Investigator and CEP Interim Associate Vice Chancellor and Chief Outreach Officer Orquidea Largo and Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and Strategy and Professor of Psychology Christiane Spitzmueller, who will facilitate connections with CREATE(s) and other UC Merced faculty members.

"The Center for Educational Partnerships is excited about the Gates Foundation's investment in K-12's use of data in real time to impact our English learners' educational outcomes. The grant will support UC Merced's commitment to supporting K-12 education in addressing our equity and access gaps," noted Largo.

"We are honored that our important work is being recognized and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation," said Chancellor Juan Sánchez Muñoz. "The Gates Foundation's investment in UC Merced demonstrates the organization's confidence in our efforts to improve higher-education equity and access to the diverse student populations of our region and state, especially the often overlooked and historically underserved students from rural school districts."

Funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is among the milestone philanthropic gifts that are driving Boldly Forward: The Campaign for UC Merced. Boldly Forward aims to raise $200 million by 2030, with gifts and pledges received during the campaign's launch already surpassing $98 million.