Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Postsecondary Success

July 17, 2017

Equity, Sustainability, and the Future of College


Rio SaladoBy Dan Greenstein

In my five years at the foundation, I have done a good number of presentations, panel discussions, and speeches. And one of the things I enjoy most about these experiences is the opportunity to hear from people from across our enterprise and our nation. The most common— and vexing— question I receive from audiences is “What is your read on the future of college?”

That question is a difficult one because I approach it with a mix of alarm and hope. I’m alarmed in that I see continuing and even deepening challenges with respect to equity and sustainability— two touchstones of our work. But at the same time, I have reason to be optimistic, as I see signs that we can overcome these challenges.

First, sustainability. In several respects, our enterprise is on a financial trajectory that will narrow opportunity rather than expand it. Less than half of community college presidents surveyed (43 percent) are confident in the financial stability of their institutions over the next decade. Tuition’s share of operating revenue has jumped from 38 percent to 48 percent in just the last 10 years. Student aid programs are helping, but the burden of unmet need is growing heavier, including for our lowest income students.

Second, equity. College attainment gaps by race and income have not improved over the past generation, and in some cases have gotten worse. Whites are more than twice as likely to have degrees by age 25 than Latinos. A high-income student is five times more likely than a low-income student to have a degree by age 24. These numbers are unacceptable. And they could deteriorate further as individual colleges, seeking to maximize revenue, make pricing and aid decisions that crowd out some of our most vulnerable students.

So what do we do? Where are the glimmers of hope? Three in particular rise to the surface:

Focus. Focus is in part about using data and analytics to pinpoint which of our students need help, where they need help, and what kind of help will be most effective. This is the heart of the story at Georgia State University, one of the few institutions in the country that has successfully closed completion gaps. A review of their data revealed that the path out of college for many students started with something as simple as a registration mistake or an unplanned repair bill. So the university took steps to address those issues, implementing stronger, technology-aided student advising and creating an emergency aid program that helps students with unexpected expenses.

Subtract as well as add. Efficiency is a much-maligned word in higher education, with many arguing that it is just a dog whistle for those who want to cut funding for colleges and universities and student aid. It can be. And yes, I will be the first to admit that colleges cannot simply cut their way to financial sustainability. But pursuing efficiencies does buy time and free up resources to develop longer term solutions. Institutions as diverse Sinclair Community College in Ohio and at Delaware State University offer examples of taking a hard look at existing programs and making the decision to discontinue those with lower participation or outcomes.

Support creative disruptions. While the literature about disrupting college has offered useful insights, it also has assumed unrealistically that the timelines that applied in industry could be similarly applied to higher education. Disruptions do happen— just at a slower pace. And one thing philanthropy in particular can do is continue to support and catalyze truly new thinking that can nudge our systems into more of an innovation mindset that is essential for education to meet the needs of more low-income students and students of color sustainably and at scale.

A good example of this is remedial education. A system that has failed too many is being redesigned so that students are being placed in credit-bearing classes and given the help they need on the side, rather than the other way around. Working with our peers in the foundation community, we are proud to have supported the work of groups such as Complete College America and the Dana Center, who have led the way in developing and evaluating new models in this area. Today, a growing number of institutions and states are signing on to remedial redesign.

I’m an historian by training and an optimist by nature. American higher education has risen to the challenge before, and I believe it can again. But we must start with an honest assessment of how we are failing as a bridge to opportunity and what we can do to correct that.

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