Gates Foundation Ramping Up Higher Ed Reform Efforts

When it comes to education reform, no voice has been louder, more consistently heard, and backed up by as much money as that of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Though Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation have traditionally been associated with K-12 education, Marc Parry, Kelly Field and Beckie Supiano of The Chronicle of Higher Education write that since coming into existence, the Foundation has spent nearly $500 million on various initiatives designed to completely redefine what a college education in America looks like.

Gates’ efforts, however generous, are not universally embraced. Criticism has come from the usual places, such as entrenched interests hoping to maintain the status quo, but some who have researched higher education for years are complaining that the Foundation’s influence is, as described by The Chronicle, creating an echo chamber and locking out dissenting voices when laying down reform goals and initiatives.

It’s hard to argue that higher education in the country isn’t in need of improvement. Between the economic pinch and higher prices, fewer families can afford the expense, even if the return on investment warrants it. The Gates Foundation is looking to change that not via scholarships but by remaking college completely.

One of the Foundation’s most recent efforts is an online program offered by the Southern New Hampshire University that judges students not based on the number of credit hours they take but by the competencies they display. According to The Chronicle, Southern New Hampshire is the first such school to be allowed to qualify for federal student aid.

Some experts have complained that the Gates foundation approaches higher education as an engineering problem to be solved.

Most important, some leaders and analysts are uneasy about the future that Gates is buying: a system of education designed for maximum measurability, delivered increasingly through technology, and—these critics say—narrowly focused on equipping students for short-term employability.

Claremont Graduate University’s Scott L. Thomas, who studies higher ed, raises another issue. The Gates and Lumina Foundations, and many charitable organizations like them, have a strong voice in the shaping of education policy. They have the influence and the money to be heard by lawmakers, but at the same time their actions are not checked either by voters or shareholders. In Thomas’ words, “these are arguably the least democratic of institutions.”

Gates also comes under attack for what critics describe as an overly prescriptive agenda.

“They start with the assumption that something is broken,” says Patricia A. McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, which serves low-income women in the District of Columbia. “Then they take the next step of deciding what the fix is before they really understand the problem.” Skeptics say such confidence is dangerous when dealing with complex social phenomena like education.

While some welcome education reform efforts as a collaboration between private and public entities, reactions including suspicion and skepticism to input by the Gates Foundation show the severity of the disagreement over whether such a collaboration is beneficial to public education.