Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Postsecondary Success

November 9, 2016

Dan Greenstein’s Remarks at the CAEL International Conference


Higher Education at the Crossroads: Bridge to Opportunity or Reproducer of Privilege?

Dan Greenstein is the director of Postsecondary Success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

A Time for Choosing

Good morning, and thank you for asking me to be part of what looks to be an exciting and interesting several days.  I am especially grateful to Pam Tate for her steady and stable leadership in this area as it has evolved in recent years.

This morning, I am relieved to note that we appear to have survived a somewhat Hobbesian election cycle – nasty and brutish, but not very short.  The happiest people today must be advertisers, because they have a shot at airtime again.

Kidding aside, we are at a critical juncture when it comes to our societal well-being.  If this election exposed anything, it is that the gulf between the haves and have nots is real and getting wider, and is marked by a good deal of anger and resentment.

For more than a generation, education, especially higher education, has increasingly become the bridge between those two worlds, providing opportunity for millions to reach the middle class.  I see that through my own story.  In my hometown of Rochester, New York, there were plenty of good jobs for high school graduates at places like Xerox and Kodak.  No more.

Flash forward a generation to an inner city high school in Seattle.  When my son Michael’s guidance counselor asked how many of the 400 or so gathered students were going to college, nearly every hand shot up.  Why?  Because this idea that education after high school is the bridge to economic opportunity and social mobility has taken deep root in a remarkably short period of time.

But as you know all too well, that bridge has become narrower and harder to navigate, with a toll too high for too many.  The result?  About half of students who begin their higher education journey never finish it.  Race, socioeconomic status, and zip codes are predictors of educational attainment.  And that has put us on a path that will leave our economy seriously short of the talent we need to be competitive – 11 million credentialed workers by 2025, according to Tony Carnevale and the Georgetown Center.

So we have reached a time for choosing.  We will either innovate and make the hard choices needed to make affordable, high quality education after high school a reality for more Americans, or we will choose the path of least resistance, one that will widen the opportunity gap and leave us both less competitive and more divided than ever.

I think that this room is unanimous in its support for the former path – you would not be here otherwise.  So today I want to engage you in a conversation about how to change course so that the bridge to opportunity that is higher education becomes wider, easier to navigate, and affordable for all.  Specifically, I want to talk with you about who we are trying hardest to help across that bridge, what we are doing to help, and how we will need to work together to move the needle for students.

Today’s College Students

I don’t have to tell you that the demographics of American higher education are changing – you live it every day on your campuses and in your programs.  But it is important to re-ground ourselves in the realities of today’s college students – students like Danie, a colleague of mine at the foundation.  Danie, the daughter of Serbian immigrants, is a first-generation student who has faced a number of hurdles getting into and through college.  Happily, she is nearing completion of a bachelor’s degree through Western Governors University.

But there are far too many stories like hers that don’t end happily, and we need to understand them if we are going to figure out how to help more of today’s college students reach their educational goals.