Earlier this month, Bill and Melinda released their annual letter—a reflection on the 20-year journey of our foundation. In the beginning, they thought that global challenges like eradicating diseases would be far more daunting than improving education in the U.S. But the reality turned out to be the reverse.
There are a number of reasons why that is the case. One significant contributing factor is that many of the issues we attempt to address in U.S. education are rooted in systemic inequality of opportunity, including at our colleges and universities. For example, a recent analysis of federal data (see below) finds that Black and Latinx students take longer to get their degrees and face more borrowing and lower labor market outcomes than their white counterparts. And there are similarly troubling numbers when we look at outcomes by student income. There are a myriad of issues contributing to these unacceptable disparities, ranging from wage discrimination to variation in quality of K-12 schools to the college campus environments themselves. These issues must be addressed directly if we hope to improve social and economic mobility in our country.
A second contributing factor to the complexity of our U.S. education work (vs. that of our global health endeavors) is that, unlike the clear metrics of the number of lives saved, life expectancy increases or vaccines delivered in the developing world, U.S. higher ed has historically had trouble clearly and successfully defining what success looks like and for whom. Again, multiple factors contribute to this, ranging from the diversity of institutions and missions in the sector, to lacking sufficient evidence of what level of success is possible to achieve at scale. Therefore, it is very difficult to make progress on improvement approaches without some form of shared goal.
The above two issues that make our U.S. education work so complicated are also two of the primary motivators for our support of the Postsecondary Value Commission, which we envision as a means to help the field establish clear, actionable definitions of value with a focus on equity and mobility—a necessary step on the road to improvement. The commission will release its recommendations later this year.
Education can be an engine of mobility and opportunity in this country—we know this to be true from our investments in certain institutions, such as Lorain County Community College and Alamo College District (see below). But for too many it is not. That’s why, as Bill and Melinda said in their letter, we’re going to keep swinging for the fences, no matter how far they might seem.