Bill Gates on increasing university graduation rates

There’s a brief article in the Atlantic that points to a presentation by Bill Gates in which he advocates for improved university graduation rates. The article claims that “shockingly low graduation rates” are the “biggest problem” for higher education. I couldn’t disagree more. The biggest problem is that we are expecting colleges and universities to compensate for deficiencies that begin in the secondary school system. We are expected to hand degrees to students who are not prepared to learn — and now we are increasingly expected to pump them out faster. I previously described this as the “factory education” model, that educational performance can be understood and optimized purely by pumping up the statistics. To me, this is not very different from the disastrous No Child Left Behind policy, which was itself born out of the wrong-headed notion that education can be controlled and improved by policy-makers, who deduce truth through the study of statistical measures and over-generalized correlations that are far removed from the reality of educational interactions.

In my view, the educational process is highly individual and local — much like economic transactions. Central control of education is comparable to central control of prices in a competitive economy. Although I am not an economist, my understanding is that prices are most effectively set by market participants — the buyers and sellers who are most intimately associated with individual transactions. Policy-makers cannot feasibly obtain and process all the information that is relevant to pricing in every local transaction. I believe there is analogy here that can be applied to education: policy-makers are not in a position to understand to vast array of objectives and circumstances that affect higher education, and should be cautious about the conclusions they draw from apparent statistical relationships. For example, it is true that having a university degree is associated with higher earning potential. But giving everyone a “degree” will not cause them to become high earners.

Outcome-driven education policies are fundamentally broken because they lack any meaningful sense of qualia. If we simply dictate that universities must deliver more graduates or face sanctions, then the universities will comply. The least-energy solution is to dumb-down our programs, reduce standards, and let more students pass through without demonstrating the  level of skill attainment that is appropriate for their degree. My views are shared by many people who submitted comments to the Atlantic article (which has an unusually good comment thread). Here are some of the highlights:

The enormous overhead expense associated with over staffing and building fancy “perks” for students (facilities, gyms, high-end food service) is what is really driving up costs. Meanwhile, well-intentioned efforts to “get more people into/through” college is driving standards of performance down. I am constantly under pressure to “dumb down” my classes and spoon feed students who won’t take the initiative to learn the material, but have the weapon of evaluating me negatively at the end of the term if I don’t make things easy and accessible for them. The students who are really “losing” under this system are the really good ones, who aren’t getting the challenging higher education they want and deserve. What I would like to see is more skill-based, programmatic vocational tracking at the 2-year and state colleges that will lead to high-paying jobs. — AnnieB

Focusing on students who would drop out both decreases the value to employers of that education (because a degree would no longer be an indication of a solid work ethic) and insures that all students receive a lower quality education…. The focus on completion is what destroyed high school, and that damage is obvious to everyone. Don’t let that damage happen to our colleges. Perhaps if we make it clear that only properly prepared students are acceptable college candidates high school students would work harder at their education while in high school. As it is, a student can graduate without putting any significant effort into their education at all. — Cyberike

I am a university professor in Canada. My institution is working on specifically helping students succeed… not by dumbing down the expectations, but by providing mentoring and tutoring for courses with high failure rates. It’s working well… and creates a collaborative feeling. — Nancy

There is this huge irony in technology: it requires high skills and a
massive investment of time, energy and resources over long time periods to
deliver modern goods and services… but what these very products encourage is
easy entertainment and instant gratification. A diminishing number of high
skill producers serve an increasingly large number of low skill consumers. Modern
capitalist systems can flood the market place with streams of cheap commodities
and thereby promote a sense of entitlement and an expectation that you can be
famous for five minutes without having to do very much. — Tony Cleaver


2 thoughts on “Bill Gates on increasing university graduation rates

  1. Pingback: The modern university: is the bubble about to burst? | Chris Winstead

  2. Pingback: The modern university: is the bubble about to burst? | Fair Coin Toss

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