Monday, July 15, 2013

BREAKING: Funders Have Agendas

The Chronicle of Higher Ed just ran a set of articles with inflammatory headlines threatening to blow the lid off the Gates Foundation and its secret agenda.  It turns out that...hold on to your hats, people...the Gates Foundation is using money to encourage colleges to help students complete degrees.

Shocking, I know.  Next we’ll discover that money influences politics, too.

Maybe it’s because my original training is in political science, where the idea that money and power are intertwined is, um, let’s say “well worn,” but this doesn’t strike me as particularly groundbreaking.  

Had the articles revealed some sort of hidden agenda, that would have been something.  But as near as I can tell after repeated readings, the Gates Foundation stands accused of forwarding the same agenda that it claims in public.  

Which, I assume, it is.  

Its ideas may be right, wrong, or some mix of the two, but they aren’t secret and they aren’t -- as far as I can tell -- stalking horses for something else.  

The most radical ideas -- competency-based education and using financial aid to encourage completion -- both strike me as conceptually sound.  Yes, the details matter, and yes, it’s possible to get either one wrong.  (I’m actually more wary of the latter than of the former, but that’s me.)  But revealing that, say, Amy Laitinen’s work on the credit hour was supported by a foundation -- a fact she already revealed -- doesn’t speak to the validity of the work.  Is Baumol’s cost disease a fiction?  Does seat time really make sense after all?  For that matter, is multi-year remediation really the best that can be done?

The pieces come off as a frustrated attempt at an ad hominem, but with little mud to sling.  

As someone who isn’t on a Foundation payroll, I can say that I find the competency-based degree that Southern New Hampshire University is developing through its College for America exciting and groundbreaking.  It’s version 1.0 of something that will evolve and improve, but the basic idea -- that what you learn matters more than how long it took you to learn it -- is right.  Baumol’s cost disease is real, insidious, and entirely independent of the Gates Foundation.  And for heaven’s sake, anyone who thinks that the success rates of long-term remediation programs is worth defending has a lot of work to do.

Yes, there are valid critiques to raise.  The articles suggest two, and I’ll raise a third.

First, as the articles correctly note, Gates is enormous.  By virtue of its size, it can drown out other voices.  That’s true, and it’s an argument for diversifying the funders out there.  To the extent that people are afraid to raise issues for fear of alienating a funder, the best solution is to multiply the funders.  That’s especially true when you think about what happens when Gates shifts its focus to something else.  To the extent that higher ed policy innovation becomes dependent on one or two funders, it’s fragile.  But the solution isn’t to get rid of those one or two.  It’s to find more.  Diversify the portfolio.

Second, as the articles note, Gates has blind spots of its own.  I’ve been a little puzzled at its seeming indifference to people who actually work in higher education.  But there, too, the way to improve it is to get those other ideas out there.  As the Gates projects evolve, if they want to ensure sustainability, they’ll have to recognize some of the realities of higher education that those of us in the trenches know well.  

Finally, it’s certainly true that a hamfisted focus on completion could easily work to the detriment of the students with the least resources.  That is a real danger, and one well worth preventing.  But to the extent that, say, current practices around remediation are likelier to damage low-income students at community colleges than legacy admits at Yale, then improving those practices should disproportionately benefit those same low-income students.  I certainly don’t see the argument against trying.  We need to keep the mission of inclusion and social justice in the forefront of our thinking as we innovate, but I refuse to believe that what we have now is the best of all possible worlds.  

Go ahead and rail against the concentration of wealth in America; I’ve done that myself.  And I’m entirely behind a call for developing a more robust and diverse set of funding sources to support reflective and innovative work in higher ed.  Hell, go ahead and attack Gates for following its agenda if you disagree with it.  But I don’t see a scandal here.  The Foundation is trying to make a difference, just like it says it is.  If you want to show it up, offer something better.