Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Postsecondary Success

December 15, 2020

Postsecondary Success Notes | Back to normal is not the goal

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew.  This one is no different.  It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next”. — Arundhati Roy

If a pandemic creates a portal, then what exactly does our current environment – a combination of a health crisis, an economic crisis, and reckoning with longstanding racial injustices – create? None of us really know. We can cling to our security blankets of stock market forecasts, political prognostications, and vaccination modeling, but the truth is we don’t really know. Any one of these variables could affect the others in ways we can’t imagine.

So if we can’t predict the future, what can we do with these portals to the unknown?  We can, as Roy also suggests, “choose to walk through [them], dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred…or we can walk lightly with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.  And ready to fight for it.”

There are some education “carcasses” that we should leave behind: 

  • Inequitable funding that provides institutions serving predominantly Black, Latino and Indigenous students 20% less resources than others.
  • Arcane credit transfer rules and incentives that result in wasted time and money (for both students and taxpayers).
  • Students’ pathways (into and through postsecondary) that are unclear, inequitable and do not focus on student success.
  • Climates in our colleges, universities and places of employment that are not equitable and fail to draw out the talent of all of their people.

And what can we fight for in this period of uncertainty?  

  • Systems that count all students and hold us accountable for their equitable social and economic mobility.
  • Policies that reverse discriminatory financing and pathways and, in the process, create stronger and more reliable roads to opportunity for today’s students.
  • Teaching and advising approaches emerging this year from innovative faculty and staff who are marrying the best of technology and human engagement to help their students survive and even thrive.
  • Institutions that boldly pursue transformation to ensure they are engines of equitable social and economic mobility.

It should come as no surprise that I don’t have a particularly strong appetite for the phrase, “When we get back to normal….” I don’t want to get back to normal, because “normal” in American higher education is not currently living up to its potential as an engine of equitable social and economic mobility.

But we are optimistic that this enterprise can live up to its potential, which is why we continue to invest. We don’t have all the answers, but through partnership, we believe we can take dramatic steps toward this vision. My greatest admiration and appreciation goes out to you, our partners and friends, for your resilience and brilliance during this most difficult year. The end of this year will not magically lift present-day uncertainty, but we feel fortunate to have you walking with us through whatever portals present themselves in 2021.

Regards,
Patrick Methvin