Bill Gates Does Higher Education Reform

If Bill Gates says something, does that make it right?

Or, to put it another way, because you’re a technology billionaire devoted in retirement to solving the world’s problems through philanthropy, how can you correctly identify the world’s problems?

Bill Gates explains what he thinks is wrong with American higher education:

More specifically, as Jordan Weissmann at The Atlantic explains:

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.

The trouble with this explanation is that college cost is actually is the real problem. It’s the cause of low graduation rates. The main reason students cite for dropping out of college is its high price, either the tuition itself or the fact that they had to work and support a family while they were attempting to attend college.

Gates doesn’t reject this argument (which, admittedly wasn’t presented to him) but he focuses on something else, how we measure and rank colleges. He thinks instead of looking at colleges mostly in terms of input measures (SAT scores, faculty student ratio) we should be looking at outputs.

He’s got a point, indeed we at the Monthly have been trying to rank colleges based on their service to the country for years, but I’m not sure he’s identified the right problem to try to fix through more data.

Weissmann: “To begin fixing this problem, we need to flip U.S. News‘ logic, Gates said, and reward schools that ‘take people with the low SAT and actually educate them well.’”

Yes, we should be rewarding such schools. But it’s not clear a revision to the college ranking system could have a dramatically positive effect on America’s graduation rate. Because SAT score is so closely correlated with family income people with low SAT scores not only have trouble understating the material in college, they have a lot more trouble paying for college, too. The are a number of schools that do better than one might expect graduating students with low SAT scores (particularly women’s colleges and historically black schools) but there are precious few colleges with low SAT scores and graduation rates that are actually high.

We can’t hope to change incentives by highlighting something if that something doesn’t really exist.

Focus on what we know here. The ambiguous benefits of more data can be a side project. If it works, great, but if you’re serious about tackling college completion, it’s time to address the known cause of low completion. There’s no benefit to making up a cause.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer