Our Goal: to ensure that all low-income young adults have affordable access to a quality postsecondary education that is tailored to their individual needs and educational goals and leads to timely completion of a degree or certificate with labor-market value.
– The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Postsecondary Success
How much would you pay for access to a college education that is not designed by Bill Gates? By my estimate, it may soon be more than $40,000 a year.
Once the country with the undisputed best higher-education system in the world, the United States now ranks 12th in the percentage of young adults with degrees. Graduation in four years is becoming the exception rather than the norm, and states continue to cut funds while tuition at public colleges has climbed, but not enough to cover the gap left by that loss.
Tuition at private colleges often runs well over $40,000 a year and, at the elite campuses, can top $60,000 annually with room and board and other costs included. Despite a public focus on serving disadvantaged students of merit, disproportionately few high-achieving middle- and low-income students get enough financial aid to attend private colleges without taking on huge debt. Nationally, outstanding student loans hover around $1 trillion.
Higher education, both public and private, is challenged to meet the demands of a new economy and students with very different expectations, needs and skills than in previous generations. Moreover, it must do so in a time of profound economic inequality.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has stepped in with hundreds of millions of dollars to finance programs and invest in partnerships to improve college attendance, graduation rates, and the connection between public higher education and the labor market for low-income students. On its face, this seems like an ideal solution.
The reality, however, is that the focus of the Gates Foundation and its partners on public higher education could further institutionalize the divide between the roughly 72% of American students who attend public colleges and the 28% who attend private colleges, even if it improved economic mobility between the lower and middle classes.
Philanthropists have always donated to American higher education. Why be concerned now? Some kinds of grants build a stronger civil society by supporting scholarships, new buildings, improved libraries, art collections and even new colleges. My own institution, CUNY, just received a major gift from the Stella and Charles Guttman Foundation for a new community college that focuses on the same vocational goals that the Gates Foundation promotes. It is too soon to know whether or not it will be successful. If it succeeds, that will be wonderful; it will offer another option for our students. If it fails, not much harm will have been done. In either case, the institution of higher education itself will not have been jeopardized.
The new trend in philanthropy, exemplified by the Gates Foundation and known as “philanthrocapitalism,” however, is to transform whole institutions through strategic giving. This movement brings the tools and technologies of the market to nonprofits. Perhaps most important for higher education, philanthrocapitalists seek to leverage public money and to engage in “catalytic giving” that ripples far beyond the reach of the original donation. According to the Gates Foundation’s website, “Our primary approach is to play a catalytic role – to support the development of solutions that are unlikely to be generated by institutions working alone and that can trigger change on a broader scale.”
Reform movements that shift the institution of public higher education, but not private higher education, deserve close scrutiny. At CUNY, for example, a Gates-style system-wide reform effort known as Pathways recently received a 92% vote of no confidence from the faculty. Faculty criticism has focused on Pathways’ decreased academic standards, reductions in required course credit hours and cuts to nonapplied areas – including philosophy and languages – to increase graduation rates. It is unclear what form Pathways will ultimately take, but, unlike the new community college, the outcome will affect all of CUNY in perpetuity.
In the fall of 2012, David Humphries and the English department of Queensborough Community College became the cause célèbre of opposition to CUNY’s Pathways reform. In what was widely perceived to be retaliation for a vote by the college’s English department against dropping the four credit hours they required for English composition to the three credits required by Pathways, Queensborough’s interim president overturned Professor Humphries’s election as chairman of the English department. After much heated discussion, he was reinstated.
The Best Intentions...
As Humphries told The New York Times, “It’s hard to understand how teaching less English, less math, less science and less foreign languages could be good for students.” He continued, “Under the guise of streamlining transferability we’re actually watering down the students’ education.” One Gates-supported project that deserves scrutiny is Degree Compass software, which enables colleges to collect students’ demographic data and prior grades to match them with courses and majors in which similar students have been successful. George Orwell could not have created a better system to reinforce social stratification and inequality.
Changes in higher education are necessary; I think we can all agree on that. Philanthropy, however, can become de facto public policy making. The continued existence of an informed, educated, independent citizenry will be possible only if leaders in the philanthropic sector are accountable to the public whose tax money is being leveraged to shape America’s future.
Philanthropy is no longer, if it ever was, benign and benevolent – it is powerful. This shift of power to the economic elite via philanthropy makes it even more important to our democracy’s health that we support a viable public option in higher education that is not determined by the priorities and judgments of the very wealthy, however well-intentioned they may be.
Robin Rogers is an associate professor of sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center. This article originally appeared in Chronicle of Higher Education.