Gates Foundation: No More Cuts for Colleges, but More Productivity from Pell Recipients

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has released a summary of their recommendations for dealing with the budget crisis in public universities, and key to their findings is that while state funding cuts have been severe and should go no further, the success rate for Pell Grant recipients is not high enough in relation to the cost.

The Foundation does not subscribe to the idea that college for most people isn’t worth the cost anymore.

“The returns to the individual from education are very clear,” the summary says. “In short, the more education you get, the more money you earn, and the less likely you are to be unemployed. This pattern holds true at every rung up the educational ladder, from high school dropouts to students who earn professional graduate degrees.”

The public still concurs: college enrollment has risen 17 percent over the last five years–but states have responded by higher education funding cuts of 13 percent.

While the report does not lay all the blame for rising tuition costs and student debt on state budget reductions, there is no doubt that the Foundation believes further cuts are not the solution. “The cost of a public education has been going up steadily for years,” the summary says, “and the rate of increase has spiked since disinvestment at the state level.”

Of course rising tuition has filled part of the gap, but the Foundation is especially concerned that increasing reliance on student loans, specifically Pell Grants, are not yielding a strong return on the public investment.

“So individuals and the government are spending all this money they don’t have on college, which it turns out is about a 50/50 proposition,” the report says. The Foundation is now trying to find ways to improve the graduation performance of Pell recipients.

Aside from putting an end to state funding cuts and improving Pell performance, the Foundation believes that it is necessary to “keep redesigning the higher education experience to fit the changing demographics of the student population.

“As enrollment goes up, the typical student profile changes. College students today are working and raising families while attending school, and they are often going part time. We should not expect to educate them the same way we educate single 18-year-olds living on campus and focusing only on classes.”

Not surprisingly, this leads to an encouraging message about the effectiveness of online learning.  The Foundation wants even more focus on “developing technologies that can improve learning and increase personalization while lowering costs. And we have to focus on developing technologies that are effective with the least advantaged students.”

The Foundation has funded Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative (OLI).  OLI has developed interactive courseware that “got very compelling results with Carnegie Mellon students, but the question always existed about whether the results would hold for less well prepared and self-motivated students.

“We funded OLI to work with community colleges and their students. Recently, a random control trial proved that OLI-powered blended learning at public universities serving a cross section of student produced the same or better results than traditional models while getting students through the material in less time. The results point the way to significant cost savings and high-quality learning together.”

We believe that however the introduction of online learning plays out, the Foundation’s concern for public higher education is laudable as well as necessary if we are indeed to “maintain our higher education system as an engine of growth and social justice.”