The 30-person commission, announced Thursday, will be led by Sue Desmond-Hellmann, the foundation’s CEO, and Mildred García, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. It also includes a mix of representations, including college students, business leaders, professors, policy experts, the editor-in-chief of the Washington Monthly (which does rank colleges), association and union leaders.
“Our foundation’s learned a lot in the last ten years about getting more students to and through college, especially low income students and first-generation students, students of color, and working adults. But, we still don’t know enough about the benefits that education beyond high school brings,” said Desmond-Hellmann, during a conference call with reporters. “We want to help answer this question, ‘Is college worth it?’”
She said that is a question that more people have these days, and that the timing is right to step in with a framework to help consumers of higher education evaluate their choices.
But the idea reminded me of an interview I did with Bill Gates back in 2012 for The Chronicle of Higher Education, when he lamented the lack of clear benchmarks for evaluating colleges.
“If you try and compare two universities, you’ll find out a lot more about the inputs—this university has high SAT scores compared to this one,” he said.
“And it’s sort of the opposite of what you’d think. You’d think people would say, ‘We take people with low SATs and make them really good lawyers.’ Instead they say, ‘We take people with very high SATs and we don’t really know what we create, but at least they’re smart when they show up here so maybe they still are when we’re done with them.’ So it’s a field without a kind of clear metric that then you can experiment and see if you’re still continuing to achieve it.”
This commission appears to be a step toward fulfilling Gates’s dream of making a clear metric.
What did Gates suggest should go into such a metric back in 2012?
“You’d like it to go into the completion rates, the quality of the employees that get generated by the learning experience,” he said. “The various rankings have focused on the input side of the equation, not the output.”
Foundation leaders stressed that economic benefits would be a focus of the commission as it developed the framework.
That led Nicholas Tampio, a professor of political science at Fordham University, to ask in an essay in The Conversation whether that spelled trouble for the liberal arts. “By focusing on the economic returns of higher education, the commission may lead policymakers to put less weight on the other reasons that students go to college, including to read humanity’s greatest books, grapple with big questions about justice, study in other countries, work at internships and think about what to do with the rest of one’s life,” he wrote.
A similar question was asked during the press call, and Desmond-Hellmann replied: “Our focus is going to be on the economic returns of education after high school, while we recognize that there are real and significant non-economic returns. Equity will be at the center of the commission’s work.”
Phil Hill, a longtime edtech consultant, said that while it was good that the foundation was convening the group, he worried that it might overly focus on what can be easily counted.
“Foundations, particularly Gates, are so wedded to hard data and the usage of that data that they have blind spots to things that may not fit into their view because they don’t have data on it,” he said in an interview. That, he added, could result in a “simplistic framework.”
Hill had just given a keynote speech at a conference called “Disquantified: Higher Education in the Age of Metrics,” at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The talk was titled “Philanthropy Dot Edu: The Outsized Influence of Foundation Support of Digital Learning Initiatives.”
Disclosure: The Gates Foundation has provided financial support for projects at EdSurge.