Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Postsecondary Success

February 28, 2017

Dan Greenstein’s Remarks to Black Enterprise BE Smart HBCU Summit


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

(This is the “as prepared” version of Dan Greenstein’s remarks at the Black Enterprise BE Smart HBCU Summit in Baltimore on February 28, 2017.)

Good morning. It’s a privilege to be able to join and learn from you today and to share a few thoughts. And a special thanks to President Wilson and Morgan State for hosting us, to Mr. Graves, Sr. and Jr., and to Black Enterprise for bringing us together and for their work in raising awareness on critical issues facing higher education today.

The discussions you will have here today are especially timely and urgent, as our nation faces an opportunity gap at a critical point in its history. What we are seeing in our politics and our public discourse has relatively little to do with ideology. It has a lot more to do with the fact that 99 percent of new jobs require education after high school and not enough people have access to that education. And the fact that a high-income student is five times more likely to have a degree by 24 than a low-income student. And the fact that yawning college attainment gaps by race haven’t budged in two decades – and may be widening at the B.A. level.

The reality behind those numbers is simple and stark. Our prevailing model of higher education in this country – one that prizes exclusion over inclusion, that tolerates innovation rather than embracing it, that can be actively disdainful of measures of institutional effectiveness and efficiency – is not sustainable. US higher education as an industry needs to fundamentally change. It is hardly alone in this – I mean what knowledge-based enterprise has not seen at least some degree of upheaval in the past generation. Think of health care. Financial services. And, as our friends at Black Enterprise will tell you, journalism.

We – all of us – are now being called to move beyond admiring this problem and actually do something about it. Bridging the opportunity gap demands of us a willingness to question fundamental assumptions about our students and what works for them, to challenge conventional wisdom about the pace of change, and to push back on individual and institutional inertia.

So what does that mean? It means, as we heard yesterday from an excellent panel, being clear and crisp about our institutions’ business plans, and being accountable to our constituents – our students, their employers, our state and federal funders – for the tangible value that we add – like Paul Quinn and National Louis Universities have done. It means mining data to design stronger and clearer pathways to a credential, like Delaware State has done. It means taking students who have the drive but not the grades to succeed and working intensively with them, as they are doing at Johnson C. Smith. It means redefining prestige not in terms of who we exclude or the research dollars we expend, but in terms of the students we include and how well they succeed, as Georgia State and Florida International Universities are doing.

After five years of having the privilege to lead the foundation’s postsecondary success work, I have come to the conclusion that the central challenge in helping more Americans realize their educational dreams is not one of skill. We have a great deal of knowledge about what works for today’s college students, and we are learning more every day.

Rather, I see two obstacles. First: access to that knowledge. It is not consistently available to all higher education leaders, including  – as we heard yesterday – to leaders of HBCUs who are not necessarily party to the budding national conversation about higher ed reform.

The second, and perhaps larger hurdle, to clear is the will to change. Even where there is movement toward new ways of serving our students, those efforts can be stranded in the land of the pilot because some of the fundamental rules of the game – including and especially funding streams, accountability measures, and historic but increasingly outmoded faculty prerogatives about who and how we teach – can reinforce old ways of doing things.

That is why our foundation is building a coalition of the willing, forming partnerships with campuses and systems that are taking steps to transform themselves in the interests of student success and equitable education attainment. We are working with and learning from institutions that are redesigning themselves to meet students where they are and improve their chances for economic, as well as educational success. We are working to disseminate what is being learned so that others may follow in this path.

So I challenge each of you today as you hear from your peers and other innovators to ask yourself two questions:

First: “What is one policy or practice that my institution could change NOW that would make a positive difference for our students?” And then take that question back to your campuses and work on it.

Second: “Given persistent resource constraints measured in terms of money AND know-how, on what could my institution work collaboratively with others to accelerate the pace of change and increase the chance of success?”

We are interested in hearing about the boldest of your ideas, in learning about how we can connect those of you willing to pursue them with the networks and the knowledge that can help support your success.

For millions of our students, their shot at the middle class – at crossing the opportunity gap – hangs in the balance. For our economy, strength and competitiveness hang in the balance. For our communities, justice hangs in the balance. Your success is not merely a matter of casual interest. It is a matter of historic and national importance. So let’s get to work.

Thank you.