Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Postsecondary Success

August 28, 2019

Postsecondary Success Notes | The problem with either/or thinking


Sometimes it seems as if we live in an “either/or” world – especially if you are a parent – yes or no, right or wrong, now or later.

It is tempting to carry that mindset into the work of transforming colleges and universities into more student-centered places. We see that in discussions about the impact of innovative policies and practices. And we reduce the storyline to binary opposites – an intervention either works or it doesn’t. College is either valuable or it isn’t.

The reality, however, is more nuanced. We have seen this in a number of areas, such as improving student advising, where there is evidence pointing to both successes and setbacks. And we are committed to transparency about both.

“Either/or” thinking can be a trap when it comes to something as complex and consequential as education after high school. We have to be prepared to ask deeper questions like when, where, or for whom is an innovation or program effective. The “either/or” mindset can lead us to oversimplify our conclusions, potentially throwing out programs that work for some students and programs that could be improved.

The challenge – and opportunity – for all of us involved in the hard work of institutional transformation is to accept that the answer to many of our questions will be “it depends.” That’s why we must keep asking the questions that will help us build on what is working for today’s students, while also striving to improve what isn’t.

Patrick Methvin