A Conversation with Bill Gates: The Future of Higher Education

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Chronicle interview

A Conversation with Bill Gates: The Future of Higher Education

On Business's Role in Higher Education
"If you're engaged in some inefficient practice, maybe that's a bad thing."

The Gates Foundation has given tens of millions of dollars to traditional universities and to some new upstart players in higher education. But with that amount it would be possible to build a new campus of your own—have you considered starting your own university?

Well, we have a couple of people who are starting new universities that we're getting behind. They're looking at low-cost models where they figure out the right student pool, where they use technology the right way.

For us, our role is different than that. Our role is to make sure that the universities that are out there that already have a lot of professors, a lot of real estate, a lot of reputation, that if there's ways that they can do things better, like looking at their completion rates and saying, OK, what are the best-practices? And seeing a student who seems to be disengaged, what do you to do to get them re-engaged?

Even these top universities often only have a 60-percent completion rate. And the average university will have something like a 30-percent completion rate. So you have an immense amount of wasted resource, and students who end up with a big loan and sort of a negative experience in terms of their own self-confidence. And so that failing student is a disaster for everyone. And yet there's been surprisingly little put into finding out who does it well. Even universities knowing their completion rates. It's only been recently with some things we and others have gotten behind that there have been standard metrics and a willingness to share what is actually a fairly embarrassing statistic for these universities and be able to say if somebody's got 80 percent, what are they doing? Is it the pool of people they bring in or what they're doing when they get there?

The role of business in higher education is a hot topic these days. Many new online-education efforts are run by companies, and in some ways the controversy at the University of Virginia over the forced resignation of the president there was partly about how fast the institution should move online and adopt a more business-style approach. What would you say to those who worry that businesses, and in some cases even foundations like yours, are becoming too influential at traditional colleges?

Well, if you're against completion and measuring completion then, yeah, we're a real problem. Because we're saying, Hey, maybe we ought to look at that. Because budgets are so tight we're going to have to find best practices there, and if you're engaged in some inefficient practice, maybe that's a bad thing.

Our goal is pretty simple: Seeing the U.S. education system as a real gem. As the thing that's provided broad opportunity and made the country do very well. And so the question is how do we renew that when others have looked at what we do well and copied a lot of those things. And so their universities are getting a lot better. Their completion rates are better than ours. Their efficiency rates are better than ours. The number of students who go into science and math are better than ours. What is it that we need to do to strengthen this fundamental part of our country that both in a broad sort of economic level and an individual-rights level is the key enabler. And it's amazing how little effort's been put into this. Of saying, OK, why are some teachers at any different level way better than others? You've got universities in this country with a 7-percent completion rate. Why is it that they don't come under pressure to change what they're doing to come up with a better way of doing things? So if casting light on the current state of the system is a good thing, then we're a positive change. And if not, then people could feel differently.

In blunter terms, some have asked what makes successful business people—even if they are successful at business—qualified to weigh in on the operation of universities?

Well, obviously anything that has to do with the universities is going to be figured out by people who've worked in universities, and it's going to be piloted in universities. I don't think there's any business people who are just walking out of their office door and walking over to a university and saying, Hey, reorganize your university this way. I've never heard of that. What we do is we fund universities who are on the cutting edge. And so it's people from universities who apply and say, Hey, I want to do this next-generation learning. Because you need the people doing the neat content, and the people who actually sit with the students and motivate the students and help them when they're confused, help them with the labs, you need those elements to come together.

Take remedial math, which is an absolute disaster. What destroys more self-confidence than any other educational thing in America is being assigned to some remedial math when you get into some college, and then it's not taught very well and you end up with this sense of, Hey, I can't really figure those things out. If we can take and bring the right technical things and people things to that, then that would make a huge difference.

So all the grants are to people in universities, and, yes, some people in universities disagree with other people in universities. But if you have a sense that completion is a good thing, then you're all eventually going to come to a consensus that yes, we can improve.

Still, these grants do create an incentive—and it's not just your foundation, it's all foundations—to work toward the goals that the foundation has set out. It sounds like your argument is that you're placing a variety of bets, in a way, rather than telling universities that this is the way that it should be done with your grant money, which is pretty powerful.

We bet on the change agents within the universities. And so, various universities come to us and say, We have some ideas about completion rates, here are some things we want to try out, it's actually budget that holds us back from being able to do that. People come to us and say, We want to try a hybrid course where some piece is online, some piece is not, and we're aiming this at the students that are in the most need, not just the most elite. So that's who we're giving grants to, people who are trying out new things in universities. Now the idea that if you have a few universities that figure out how to do things well. how do you spread these best practices, that's a tough challenge. It's not the quite same way as in the private sector that if somebody's doing something better, the price signals force that to be adopted broadly. Here, things move very slowly even if they are an improvement.

Some of what you've been talking about is getting people to completion by weeding out extraneous courses. There's a concern by some that that might create pressure to make universities into a kind of job-training area without the citizenship focus of that broad liberal-arts degree.

Right now, a lot of the institutions that are all-access are essentially overloaded. That is, if you're trying to get through in the appropriate amount of time you'll find yourself constantly not able to get into various required courses. And so if you're taking more years and more courses simply because you're being held out of the ones that are required for your degree, that's a real problem. And there's not very good metrics about that. Costs are being constrained because the state money is going down. They can only raise tuition a certain amount, and what happens is the federal support for tuition is really very up in the air, like so many elements of the federal budget right now. And so yes, it is important to distinguish when people are taking extra courses that broaden them as a citizen and that would be considered a plus, versus they're just marking time because they're being held up because the capacity doesn't exist in the system to let them do what they want to do. As you go through the student survey data, it's mostly the latter. But I'm the biggest believer in taking a lot of different things. And hopefully, if these courses are appealing enough, we can get people even after they've finished a college degree to want to go online and take these courses.

Is there a professor or teacher who inspired you to get into education? And of all the things that your foundation could invest in, why higher education, and where does that passion come from?

For the United States, I think the main area that will determine whether we retain our traditional strength or not is what we do in the education system, and I put K-12 and higher ed into that.

In higher ed, there's a part of it that has been extremely strong in the U.S.—the best in the world. You know it hasn't been easy for other people to do what we've done well. But for the first time now, we see them doing some of those things. The top universities in China, like Tsinghua, is a world-class university, absolutely in the top 50 universities in the world. So we have to double-down, particularly when there's new opportunity, which technology is bringing, and when there's a challenge, which all these budget issues are pretty dramatic in that regard. So there's nothing more catalytic. There's nothing that was more important to me in terms of the kind of opportunity I had personally. I went to a great high school. I went to a great university. I only went three years, but it doesn't matter; it was still extremely valuable to me to be in that environment. And I had fantastic professors throughout that whole thing. And so, if every kid could have that kind of education, we'd achieve a lot of goals both at the individual and country level.

What did you learn from K-12 that you're bringing to higher ed?

In K-12 you learn a lot about the motivational aspects. Why should somebody learn algebra? It's so far away in terms of connecting that with a job or any life outcome. And how to make things interesting. K-12 has been more homogenized in terms of how it's done: what the standards are, what the personnel system looks like. One of the strengths of higher ed is the variety. But the variety has also meant that if somebody is doing something particularly well, it's hard to map that across a lot of different institutions. There aren't very many good metrics. At least in high schools we can talk about dropout rates. Completion rate was really opaque, and not talked about a lot. The quality-measure things are equally different. We don't have a gold standard like SAT scores or No Child Left Behind up at the collegiate level. And of course, kids are more dispersed in terms of what their career goals are at that point. So it's got some things that make it particularly challenging, but it has a lot in common, and I'd say it's equally important to get it right.

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