When it comes to the problems facing American higher education, more people should really listen to Bill Gates.
I know that may sound a bit odd, if not outright silly. Who, if not Gates, the world's wealthiest tech nerd and college dropout, as well as its most influential living philanthropist, has a bigger microphone? Most of The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's work in the United States focuses on education, and its reports get plenty of media coverage.
But it's true. His perspective on what's ailing our colleges and universities is dead-on, and sadly under-discussed outside the world of academia.
For many months, there's been an active discussion in the press, on the campaign trail, and over plenty of dinner tables about the cost of education — about the frightening growth of student loans, about jobless grads being crushed by their debts. And as Gates noted in a talk about higher education today at the Washington Ideas Forum, hosted by The Atlantic, the Aspen Institute, and the Newseum, those are real, pressing issues, especially as the federal government considers deficit reduction measures that could cut education funding. We need to fix college financing and to make sure the system doesn't deteriorate further.
But at most colleges, and for most students — the ones who don't go to schools covered in ivy — the real problem isn't necessarily cost; it's completion. It's our country's abysmal graduation rates — less than sixty percent of undergraduates finish a bachelor's degree within six years; less than 30 percent finish two-year programs on time — which have fallen well behind much of the industrialized world. We're on pace to produce millions fewer college graduates than our economy will need in the coming decades, Gates argued, and a big part of that is our inability to get students already enrolled in college to graduation day.
"For the broad set of students going to higher ed, we're already not doing what we need to do," he said.
Gates sees this problem largely as a matter of incentives. Publications such as U.S. News and World Report reward colleges for the resources they spend on students and their exclusivity, but not necessarily for their results. High SAT scores will move a colleges up in the rankings (and so, it should be noted, will having a high graduation rate). Making sure your alums have a well-paid job, or a job at all, will not.
To begin fixing this problem, we need need flip U.S. News' logic, Gates said, and reward schools that "take people with the low SAT and actually educate them well."
That begins with getting better data and making it public, Gates argues. The government has attempted to hold for-profit universities accountable for the graduation and employment outcomes of their students. Non-profit schools should be subjected to similar scrutiny, Gates said. Whether or not legislatures defund schools that don't measure up, he believes the peer pressure will force more institutions to focus on teaching quality, and getting them across the finish line.
"It's no exaggeration to say whether it's about income equity, racial equity, the key is to make this overall education system work for everybody in the country." Indeed. And heeding the advice of one of our most famous dropouts would go a long way towards making that happen.