Breaking news from The Chronicle of Higher Education:
Bill Gates, the billionaire software tycoon, who has taken an active interest in reforming public education since retiring in 2008 to focus on philanthropic work, said states should consider basing their support for public colleges and universities on performance measures—including graduation rates for students and income and employment rates for recent graduates.
And states should collect better statistics on those measures, he said.
A lack of data on graduation rates and how graduates fare in the labor market, he said, makes it difficult to tell which institutions are adequately preparing their students for life after graduation, and which aren’t.
“Is there any criteria under which state funding would favor those that have the higher graduation rates over the ones that don’t—particularly in times when our budgets are tight?” he said. “I’m not saying that’s an easy [decision], but if we can get good measures, at least the data will be there for people to be able to decide that.”
Back in days when I was teaching freshman English, I used to caution my students about checking out their sources in order to avoid referencing a “false authority.” I wish back then I’d had Gates’s know-it-all comments about public higher education to use as an example of what I was trying to explain to my students.
Most states collect detailed data about the enrollment, retention, attrition and graduation of their students, and have for years. Often–as any public community college, college, or university president will tell you–the picture is not a pretty one. Graduation may well take longer than the requisite two or four years. Not because the students are stupid or not interested in their studies, but because they are already working, Mr. Gates, to support themselves and in many instances their families while they struggle to fit classes into what is already a full schedule. Sometimes, though, students do drop out for good. That picture isn’t pretty, either.
These students leave because they can’t hack it. Their fault? Sometimes, but not always. Some students who don’t belong in college wind up there because there’s no place else to go–they have no skills, and, if they qualify, financial aid will at least put food on their tables if not give them food for thought. Or they wind up in college because their parents gave them an ultimatum: get out or go to college. Not a strong motivator that for a less-than-committed student. Or college is their ticket to the buffet of entitlements that sure beat working. One of my students in the distant past routinely cut class, offered up excuse after excuse for work left undone, and at the end of the term had the audacity to beg me not to flunk her because, and I quote, “if I flunk I will lose my Social Security benefits and have to get a job.” And, finally, of course, there are indeed students in college who do not belong there because they are not up to the intellectual challenge. But the social-engineering open admissions policies of many public institutions are such that these students are admitted nonetheless.
Ever think about any of that, Mr. Gates, before opening your yap to expound on a topic about which you know little if anything?
Sure, everybody wants data and metrics and good hard information on which to base decisions, especially ones that involve spending taxpayers’ dollars. But unless the formulas account for the there-is-no-one-size-to-fit-all demands on public higher education, then the story the data tell is inadequate at best and pernicious at worst. Go back to rearranging your silicon chips, Bill. Do everybody a favor and keep clear of the college classroom.