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Bill Gates, with Miami Dade Rolando Montoya

Rodney Choice/Choice Photography

SEATTLE -- It is ironic, says Bill Gates, that academic institutions are so good at studying the world around them but not themselves.

Gates, the Microsoft founder whose Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has spent roughly a half billion dollars on higher education, made his case to college business officers Monday that colleges must hold themselves more accountable -- or someone else will bring them to account.

“The sooner you drive this the better it is than having it brought down from on high in a way that is not appropriate,” Gates told members of the National Association of College and University Business Officers during the group’s annual conference here, which is also home to "the foundation," as those here call it.

It will surprise few that Gates said more than a few things that would rile many a faculty member. He painted a future in which a small number of top-quality online courses in key disciplines replace home-grown lectures on many campuses (as leading textbooks have historically done), fretted about what faculty unions could do to interfere with changes in higher education, and said nonprofit colleges could learn something from for-profit colleges about providing support to students.

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But his remarks, and his answers to a set of questions posed by Miami Dade College's Rolando Montoya, displayed a level of nuance and sophistication about higher education that would probably surprise those who have read his well-publicized comments urging state governors to emphasize disciplines that create jobs and envisioning a wholesale embrace of massive open online courses by community colleges.

In a clear critique of the Obama administration’s proposed college rating system, he warned against simplistic efforts to judge colleges' quality: he discouraged a singleminded focus on college "completion.” He described as "oversimplistic" the view that higher education is "just about getting a job with a certain salary” — “Citizenship, developing deeper understanding, other things, are all important," he said.  
He also emphasized the impact that state budget cuts were having on public higher education, and particularly on institutions' ability to provide support services to students. And he acknowledged that most MOOCs are "mediocre.” 

The Gates Agenda

Gates, whose multibillion-dollar foundation funds global health and education projects, is known as voracious reader who reads both grand treatises and bone-dry technical reports. He said he was willing to read any college's report, however complicated, that explains how much it spends to subsidize unprofitable sports programs, on luxurious dorms, or why it is employing increasing numbers of administrators who play no role in directly helping students.

But colleges are not good at giving such explanations, Gates said, urging campus business officers to better-explain what happens inside the "black box" of higher ed.

“Being able to pull the numbers out and contrast yourself with other institutions, in for-profit companies is done all the time,” Gates said. But most colleges are opaque -- except, he said, for for-profits.

Because for-profits take some of the toughest students to educate and pay a steep price from a regulatory standpoint if too many of them drop out, the institutions have built up student support systems that are top-notch, he said, citing Kaplan chairman Andy Rosen’s book

"For-profits know within 10 minutes when a student hasn't gone to class so they can figure out why," Gates said. Nonprofit institutions, by contrast, tend to have a sophisticated understanding of "how much their alumni give and whether they went to a basketball game."

By contrast, Gates said, when public institutions lose state funding, they do whatever they can to protect the "academic core" but often don't count services that support students outside the classroom in that core, so those services end up being cut. Can they explain why? He singled out a few nonprofit institutions for praise, including Arizona State University.

Gates laid out a difficult scenario ahead for the vast majority of colleges that are not Harvard and Stanford or closely linked with local employers, like some community colleges. Their revenue sources will be challenged and they will find strings attached to taxpayer dollars.

But he warned against too-simple efforts to hold colleges accountable.

As lawmakers fund public colleges based on how many students they graduate -- an emphasis that many critics would lay at least partially at the feet of Gates' own foundation and the organizations it supports -- colleges may shun the hardest-to-educate students or start making it too easy to skate through.  

“Amazingly,” Gates said, “someone will have a 100 percent graduation rate, and it won’t be too hard.”

Too much emphasis on graduates' salary data will also create “huge problems,” Gates warned, because it could create unfair comparisons between salaries in New York and Utah. “All these really simple measures are really difficult,” Gates said.

The Role of Technology

Some of Gates's critics have accused him of glorifying technology's role as "the" answer if higher education is to fulfill its role as an engine of equal opportunity for all Americans. Some have gone so far as to suggest that he does so to help the technology company that provided his riches.

His comments on Monday were relatively moderate on that score. Massive open online courses will not, in and of themselves, change much, he said. He said some were good but most were "mediocre" and MOOCs in general are useful only "for the most motivated students." 

This will change, though, Gates predicted, because competition is “heating up dramatically.” MOOCs will become like a textbook rather than a replacement for college: a tool for the motivated student to learn from on their own, or as a supplement for professors.

In "five or six years," he said, digital offerings that are now "pretty crummy" will greatly improve, with online forums, links to tutors or peers, and other tools that can help underprepared students in remedial courses at scale.

A few such courses in each field will emerge and "will be as clearly excellent as the standard textbook in those fields," and at that point it will be very difficult for the average professor at a typical campus to make the case that he or she can teach that course as well as that cream-of-the-crop digital course.

It's going to be, he said, "like one of us standing up and singing compared to Madonna giving one of her tour-type performances."

That language -- and the fact that Gates did not really address what would happen to those average instructors who now give those lectures on the many typical campuses -- sounded like the vintage Bill Gates that has driven some faculty advocates to the edges of their sanity.

But then he said this: "But you still have to connect [that content], particularly to kids whose parents didn't go to college, who are having a tough time with the [traditional college] schedule, who lack the whole motivational piece. You could lose some of that as you transition to online.

"If you tell a low-income student, you don't get to sit with anybody like you, you just get to sit in front of a computer terminal, they will drop out. How you create those face-to-face opportunities is an unsolved piece that is absolutely critical.

"I still believe in physical places of learning for a fairly significant part of what goes on." 

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