Tuesday, January 07, 2014

An Open Letter to the Gates Foundation

Dear Gates Foundation,

On behalf of community college folks everywhere, thanks for noticing the importance of community colleges.  Your strong public focus on us has made waves that we weren’t always able to make on our own.  On my own campus, the Gateway program -- one of yours -- has done some wonderful work with at-risk high school students, bringing people whose paths weren’t leading anywhere good to new possibilities.  The presence of the program triggered some difficult, but eventually healthy, campus discussions; a relatively small cohort of students had a much larger impact than they probably even suspected.

On the policy front, you’ve catalyzed some discussions that were long overdue.  It’s easy to take exception to this idea or that one -- if you would like input from an experienced community college administrator who obsesses about these things, my phone works --  but at least the debates are happening.  

But I think you’ve overlooked an area you’re uniquely qualified to address.  This is where you could make the kind of positive difference -- I’m entirely serious about this -- that nobody else could.

Software.  (I’ll admit I was tempted to say “Plastics.”  Old joke.)

Community colleges, for the most part, were established before the internet became a fact of daily life.  We’ve had to play catchup.  But unlike research universities or for-profits, for the most part, weve had to do it on a shoestring.  Our IT departments are chronically short-staffed, in large part because we can’t pay salaries anywhere close to competitive with what techies can earn in other places.  Vendors of ERP systems, “portals,” and the like charge remarkable amounts of money for their wares, knowing that we know that we have to at least try to keep up with the world.  The money that goes into that increasingly desperate chase gets diverted from other places.

And as anyone who has been through product cycles a few times knows, every new product brings with it fresh bugs, weird compatibility issues, and unintended consequences.  Those require manual work-arounds devised by the staff we can’t afford.

So here’s what I’m thinking.

You understand the importance of community colleges, and want to help.  You also have connections in the software industry at a pretty elite level.  You know software, and you want to help community colleges.  Why not help community colleges with software?

I’m not just talking about Microsoft, though that’s obviously bound to be part of the picture.  As a separate foundation, you can attract talented programmers from just about anywhere.

Imagine this.  

You declare that you will assemble the greatest pro bono team of programmers the education world has ever seen, and that they will work on durable, low-maintenance back office programs that will be free to nonprofit colleges and universities.  You could bring in teams of registrars, financial aid directors, bursars, admissions counselors, and campus IT people to consult on the design.  You could build systems to support things that colleges actually do, rather than taking wild guesses and then forcing colleges to build expensive workarounds, as happens now.  

In so doing, you could free up hundreds of millions of dollars at thousands of colleges across the country.  That’s money that could be used to hire faculty, provide academic advising and student counseling, and hold down the tuition spiral.  You could make colleges more effective, cheaper, and more sustainable, doing the thing that made you famous in the first place.

You could use your powers for good.

In the process, you could introduce the concept of “pro bono” to Silicon Valley, where, um -- how to put this delicately -- it has not been widely adopted.  

If it catches on, you could do similar projects for other worthwhile public nonprofits, be they K-12 districts, municipalities, social service agencies, or law enforcement.  You could attack a real, and growing, pain point, and help the various agencies do what they do better -- simply by doing the thing that made you famous in the first place.

Please give it some thought.  I honestly don’t think anyone else is in a position to do this even halfway as well as you could.  

If you have any questions, my phone works.  


Matt Reed