Gates Foundation to award $100,000 grants for college apps

September 27, 2012: 4:01 PM ET
bill melinda gates
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have contributed billions of dollars toward improving health care and college education.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney)

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is launching a competition today that will award up to 30 grants of $50,000 to $100,000 to winners who come up with apps, websites or other online tools that help high schoolers -- especially low-income students -- get into and succeed in college.

To kick off the College Knowledge Challenge, which runs through November 16, the foundation is holding a day-long "hack-a-thon" at Facebook's Menlo Park, Calif. headquarters. At the event, up to 100 entrepreneurs and programmers will work on developing tools that help teens navigate the college application and funding maze.

Anyone not invited to the hack-a-thon can submit a prototype and proposal that explains how their web app will provide useful college advice or a service, said Emily Dalton Smith, the program officer for the Gates Foundation who is running the competition. The winners of the $2.5 million grant competition will be announced in January.

"The foundation is concerned about low college attendance and graduation rates among all students," Smith said. But it especially wants to help minorities and low-income students, she said.

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Just 32% of Hispanic-Americans ages 18 to 24 are enrolled in college today versus 38% of African-Americans and 43% of whites, according to a recent report by the Pew Research Center.

The winners will be chosen by a panel of judges made up of Gates foundation staffers, officials from college-related nonprofits, academics and tech industry experts.

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The foundation wants to emphasize tools or apps that are innovative, quickly doable, and take advantage of social media, Smith said. At the least, the tool should offer a Facebook login as an option, she said. Further details can be found at the College Knowledge Challenge's website and on Facebook's website.

Entrepreneurs who plan to profit from their tool by charging a fee can apply for the grants, as long as the fee is low enough to be afforded by low-income teens, Smith added.

Dozens of entrepreneurs and nonprofits are already plotting out new tools to compete for the awards. GreatSchools.org, a website that provides test score, teacher qualifications and student demographic information for elementary schools and high schools sent two programmers and a designer to Facebook's offices.

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They plan to develop a tool that enables middle and high school students to connect with alumni of their schools via Facebook, said Karissa Sparks, vice president of marketing. The goal is to connect students with alumni who have already graduated from college and who share similar interests. That way, students can get support and advice from someone they are comfortable with, Sparks explained.

Founded by Microsoft (MSFT) chairman Bill Gates and his wife Melinda, the $35.6 billion Gates foundation supports a large number of causes, particularly those relating to improving global healthcare and education. For example, the foundation has granted $1.37 billion to the Gates Millennium Scholars Program, which provides college scholarships to minority students.

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