Billionaires mold our schools to produce better help in a New America

Summary: During the past thirty years conservatives have worked to dismantle the institutions that produced the prosperous middle class after WW2. Decades of starve-the-beast funding have weakened colleges (along with other social factors). Now our plutocrats have begun the last phase, rebuilding schools to produce narrowly trained technicians to work in a New America.

A three-part series: tales of New America

Increasing wealth creates positive feedback, much like a hurricane moving over warm water. A more powerful 1% allows them to command the political and economic high ground of America, so that they can gain further wealth — and shape a New America more to their liking. This process has run for several generations; now the results are plain to see — for all that wish to look. Today we have last of three tales of New America.

Anarchy
We bow only before people with money!
  1. Mad ideology: gunplay on our streets
  2. Mad ideology: billionaires play with our businesses
  3. Today: Billionaires mold our schools to produce better help

Billionaires play with our schools

After slashing financial aid to college students, ever more important to pay rocketing costs, it’s necessary to restructure universities to provide necessary technical education to the masses. Nothing broadening; that just gives them ideas above their station. Just enough to produce a skilled working class. Fortunately generations of concentrating wealth have produced  plutocrats with the power to seize control of this vital area of public policy from America’s citizens and their elected representatives.

The Gates Effect“, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 14 July 2013 — “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has spent $472-million (so far) on higher education. Why many in academia are not writing thank-you notes.” Excerpt:

In Bill and Melinda Gates’s vision for higher education, more students will get a college experience similar to Terry Crosgrove’s. Each morning, Mr. Crosgrove clocks in for the 5:30 a.m. shift packaging Slim Jims at a ConAgra plant in Troy, Ohio. On days off, he chips away at an associate degree offered through an experimental online program at Southern New Hampshire University.

The low-cost, self-paced education lacks courses and traditional professors. Instead, students progress by showing mastery of 120 “competencies,” such as “can use logic, reasoning, and analysis to address a business problem.”

The program is an important guinea pig. The U.S. Department of Education recently allowed Southern New Hampshire to become the first university eligible to award federal aid for a program untethered from the credit hour, the time-based unit that underlies courses and degrees. The move, wrote one advocate, “could signal a new era for higher education.”

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at $36-billion the world’s largest private grant-making foundation, has done much to orchestrate that new era. Its largess and sway helped get Southern New Hampshire’s program off the ground, supported a key think-tank report that advocated moving beyond the credit hour, and helped persuade a risk-averse Education Department to open federal coffers to competency-based education.

The foundation wants nothing less than to overhaul higher education, changing how it is delivered, financed, and regulated. To that end, Gates has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into getting more students to and through college, in an effort to lift more Americans out of poverty.

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Since 2006, Gates has spent $472-million to remake U.S. higher education, according to a Chronicle analysis—$343-million of that since January 2008, the year Gates announced a new focus on helping low-income young people earn credentials. The Lumina Foundation, another key player in the college-reform movement and the largest private foundation devoted solely to higher education, spent a little more than half that amount over the same period on a similar agenda.

Five years into an ambitious postsecondary program that is expected to last two decades, the avalanche of Gates cash has elevated the Seattle-based foundation to a central role in the national debate about reforming college, raising questions about the extent of its influence.

Gates’s rise occurs as an unusual consensus has formed among the Obama White House, other private foundations, state lawmakers, and a range of policy advocates, all of whom have coalesced around the goal of graduating more students, more quickly, and at a lower cost, with little discussion of the alternatives. Gates hasn’t just jumped on the bandwagon; it has worked to build that bandwagon, in ways that are not always obvious. To keep its reform goals on the national agenda, Gates has also supported news-media organizations that cover higher education. (Disclosure: The Chronicle has received money from the Gates foundation.)

The effect is an echo chamber of like-minded ideas, arising from research commissioned by Gates and advocated by staff members who move between the government and the foundation world.  Higher-education analysts who aren’t on board, forced to compete with the din of Gates-financed advocacy and journalism, find themselves shut out of the conversation. Academic researchers who have spent years studying higher education see their expertise bypassed as Gates moves aggressively to develop strategies for reform.

Some experts have complained that the Gates foundation approaches higher education as an engineering problem to be solved. Most important, some leaders and analysts are uneasy about the future that Gates is buying: a system of education designed for maximum measurability, delivered increasingly through technology — these critics say — narrowly focused on equipping students for short-term employability.

… even the biggest of the foundations have come to feel, especially since the brutal recession, that the best way to make a difference is to tap into, or “leverage,” government money, through federal and state advocacy. They have the ears of lawmakers and regulators, but they answer to neither voters nor shareholders. “In a democracy, these are arguably the least democratic of institutions,” says Scott L. Thomas, a scholar of higher education at Claremont Graduate University who has studied Gates and Lumina. “And they’re having an outsized influence on education policy.”

That influence has yielded its biggest payoff at the state level. As states make deep cuts in higher-education budgets, Gates and Lumina have helped to rechannel the public dollars that states do spend into efforts to raise college completion. The hidden hand of these foundations, felt indirectly through grantees like Complete College America and Jobs for the Future, is pushing new state efforts to tie colleges’ budgets to metrics like graduation rates. These efforts have been criticized for bypassing colleges and imposing top-down solutions.

… In higher education, many leaders and faculty members voice concerns about the Gates foundation’s growing and disproportionate impact. Many private-college presidents, in particular, feel shut out of discussions about reform. Yet few of those critics speak out in public, and some higher-education leaders, researchers, and lobbyists were reluctant to talk on the record for this article. The reason? They didn’t want to scotch their chances of winning Gates grants.

The silence extends to research. Mr. Thomas edits The Journal of Higher Education, one of the field’s leading periodicals. During his two years as editor, he has yet to receive a well-developed manuscript on the role of philanthropy in academe — even as Gates and its allies wager enormous sums to alter the fundamentals of higher education.

Update: about State fund of higher education

From “Improving Postsecondary Education Through the Budget Process: Challenges & Opportunities” by the ational Association of State Budget Officers, May 2013

During 2000-2013 enrollment at public college undergraduate  programs increased 30%.  But funding has been growing at below the inflation rate since 1990.

NASBO: college funding

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Fortune Cover
The superpower of wealth

For More Information

A look at Bill Gates:

Some posts about America’s education system:

  1. College education in America, another broken business model, 3 July 2009
  2. The secret about our universities (seldom even whispered among Professors), 5 July 2009
  3. Is a college education worth a million dollars?, 10 July 2009
  4. What should a student learn from college? Why go to college?, 1 November 2009

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5 thoughts on “Billionaires mold our schools to produce better help in a New America

  1. A related article “Alarming Research Shows the Sorry State of US Higher Ed” by Andrew McAfee. Harvard Business Review blogs 11 July 2013:

    This mission clearly includes getting students to graduate, yet only a bit more than half of all US students enrolled in four-year colleges and universities complete their degrees within six years, and only 29% who start two year degrees finish them within three years. America is last in graduation rate among 18 countries assessed in 2010 by the OECD. Things used to be better; in the late 1960s, nearly half of all college students got done in four years.

    Have graduates learned a lot? In too many cases, apparently not. One of the strongest bodies of evidence I’ve come across showing that students aren’t acquiring many academic skills is work done by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa and summarized in their book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses and subsequent research.

    Arum, Roksa, and their colleagues tracked more than 2300 students enrolled full time in four-year degree programs at a range of American colleges and universities. Their findings are alarming: 45% of students demonstrate no significant improvement on a written test of critical thinking called the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) after two years of college, and 36% improved not at all after four years. And the average improvement on the test after four years was quite small.

    Consider a student who scored at the 50% percentile as a freshman. If he experienced average improvement over four years of college, then went back and took the test again with another group of incoming freshmen, he would score only in the 68th percentile. The CLA is so new that we don’t know if these gains were bigger in the past, but previous research using other tests indicates that they were, and that only a few decades ago the average college student learned a great deal between freshman and senior years.

    Students go for dumb-downed education because the market values it (and in many cases) they value the social experience. But how long will the market pay for something that is not providing value? Some have called higher education a bubble – do you think Bill Gates and the plutarchs will be able to stop it from bursting?

  2. Simultaneously, the USA increasingly rely upon foreign education systems to provide the necessary qualified people — electronic engineers, software programmers, nurses. As it happens, Bill Gates always was a proponent of expanding the pool of H1x visas.

    The entire system looks unsustainable in the long run — one cannot reduce investment in education at home while taking advantage from other countries’ investments in education and think such systematic “value extraction” will not be severely detrimental to _all_ countries involved (but perhaps the plutocrats are so globalized that they no longer care about a specific country at all).

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