Money Talks–Perhaps Too Much

In the six years I’ve been at the Pope Center, I’ve seen a number of new higher education reform organizations emerge. I view the growing numbers of allies as a sign that higher education reform is an idea whose time has come.

Other significant trends also point toward the possibility of higher education undergoing some sort of major overhaul: the emergence of a “bubble” from too many unqualified students attending college, technical and pedagogical advances, a new spirit of frugality caused by the long-term economic malaise, growing resistance to the orthodoxy imposed by political correctness, a small but intense reawakening of interest in the traditional knowledge of the West after decades of assault by post-modern thinkers, and so on.

Yet, just as academia’s foundational problems seem poised to force serious change, a new competing vision that is contrary to real reform could swoop in and reap the benefits of the need for change—while leaving many of academia’s worst aspects intact.

That competing vision belongs to Bill Gates (or, perhaps, to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and to a lesser extent, the Lumina Foundation, a foundation that has similar goals to Gates). Gates’ vision seems to be that he wants as many people as possible educated enough to be technologically literate but not so educated that they intelligently question Big Government’s advance. Or so it seems; a big part of the Gates Foundation formula is to encourage increasing government “investment” to produce more college graduates.

According to the foundation’s strategy overview, it is promoting two programs intended to boost the numbers of college graduates. The main reason given is a fear that current trends “will leave the U.S. economy without the skilled workforce it needs to remain competitive.” The programs are:

College-Ready Education, which aims to ensure that all students graduate from high school prepared to succeed in college and in a career; and Postsecondary Success, whose goal is to dramatically increase the number of young people who obtain a postsecondary degree or certificate with labor-market value.

While Gates is known as a philanthropist these days rather than a business leader, one should not automatically assign his efforts to altruism or concern for the country. Microsoft—in which Gates is still the major shareholder—has aggressively used selective data to argue for permitting more foreign technical workers to enter the country. Gates himself has been arguing for increased immigration of computer professionals since the 1990s, even when large numbers of U.S. citizens were being thrown out of computer jobs on the heels of the “ bust.”

And this current campaign for more U.S. graduates is coming in the middle of a bubble in which college graduates are having great difficulty finding work in their fields.

It cannot be known whether Gates’ interest in increasing the number of technically proficient college graduates, either through increased immigration or through promoting higher education, is selfish or is due to a belief that he is helping the country to prosper. Either way, the Gates Foundation is throwing great wads of money around in the education establishment to accomplish its education goals. Some of it is even finding its way into conservative circles that would otherwise be inclined to favor free-market reforms. According to a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, the Gates Foundation has given $472 million for higher education reform since 2006. (Lumina’s contributions are roughly half of that.)

Not everything Gates champions is statist; some of Gates’ ideas match those discussed in the liberty-oriented higher education reform movement. These include increasing online education as a cost-cutting measure, seeking ways to measure the value added to a student’s human capital by higher education, and related innovations such as competency-based programs that give credentials for obtaining specific skills rather than through the current system of granting credit hours for traditional courses.

Yet as long as the Gates agenda includes a vision of an aggressive general expansion of college attendance, the more sensible reforms will not produce good results. America’s economic problems are not due to a surfeit of educated people, at a time when nearly 50 percent of recent college grades are working in a non-professional capacity. It is hard to see how devoting more scarce resources to higher education in a period of low demand for graduates will improve the economy. And it is equally hard to see much more in marginal returns after the dramatic 65-year expansion of higher education since World War II.

Despite such objections, expansion is very much part of the Gates agenda, which calls for an increase in graduates, use of graduation rates as a key measurement of a program, and increases in federal funding of higher education. These are greatly at odds with more objective observations that describe how such efforts are already creating a higher education bubble.

Even more worrisome, Gates seems to favor a centralization of education that gives greater power to the federal government. So far, it has been more noticeable in K-12 education, where he has championed inside-the-beltway initiatives such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Especially disconcerting is his intense support for Common Core; so far, the Gates Foundation has spent over $150 million in grants to fend off criticism of, and resistance to, the K-12 curriculum. According to one critic, Civitas Institute analyst Bob Luebke, Common Core will reduce quality by supplanting “the reading of classic texts with informational texts and deprive students of exposure to great questions and themes of literature.”

Quality is also an issue with some of the online methods supported by Gates. Much of the education appears to resemble PowerPoint presentations. Some attempts to quantify the learning of skills lends itself to the sort of multiple choice tests one takes at the Department of Motor Vehicles. It may be that, with so much attention paid to learning specific skills and procedures, that valuable education goals such as reasoning ability and historical awareness become ignored.

Some recent events even suggest that real reform is not part of Bill Gates’ agenda. An American Enterprise Institute conference funded by Gates in late June (AEI has received at least $1 million in Gates funding for education in recent years), entitled “Reinventing Financial Aid, ” was touted as an attempt to create and promote fresh thinking about student financial aid.

Yet for the most part, the dialogue was constrained within the narrow parameters of education establishment thinking; only one of the twenty-some scheduled speakers and panelists, Rich Vedder, could be described in any way as a member of the conservative higher education reform movement.

As Vedder remarked, it was not until the event was nearly over that the one fresh, powerful, and viable idea about financial aid that has emerged in the last few years—the “skin in the game” scheme—was mentioned. This scheme essentially forces colleges to co-sign for a percentage of a student’s loans, so that the school will be less likely to enroll students who have little chance of graduating and paying back their loans. There was also little subsequent discussion of the idea once it was brought up.

There were, however, plenty of ideas coming from the most extreme corners of collectivist thinking. These include, free government-subsidized higher education for everybody, making prestigious schools with restrictive admissions policies randomly choose at least half of their student bodies from a pool of Pell Grant recipients without concern for their achievement or aptitude, and other wildly impractical schemes that will diminish higher education greatly.

This view of steering the dialogue away from real reform matches an assessment by my Pope Center colleague George Leef, who, earlier in 2013, in response to an attempt by Gates to manipulate the student loan debate by funding 15 papers by different scholars and organizations on the topic, said the following:

It would have been amazing if there had been any revolutionary ideas. That’s because the Gates Foundation only approached organizations that accept the conventional wisdom that it is both essential for the country to put more people through college and that government must play the key role in making that happen. Naturally, no one colored outside those lines.

The Gates Foundation appears to be just getting started with its influence over higher education with its push on student aid. It’s hard enough swimming upstream against the flow of entire education and political establishments to achieve reform. Now, we also have to watch out for the world’s richest man undermining our efforts.