College Fund,” from

May 16, 2019; US News & World Report and Chronicle of Higher Education

Another day, another study about postsecondary education in the United States. This time, it is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Postsecondary Value Commission, which claims it “will focus on the economic returns of education after high school, recognizing that there are real and significant non-economic returns, such as developing critical and creative thinking skills and enhanced health and civic participation, many of which are directly related to employment and career outcomes.” (We are relived that the foundation agrees that education has non-economic value, although less impressed that it frames even non-economic value in economic terms).

While there have already been a number of studies about the value and economic costs of postsecondary education, including the Obama administration’s College Scorecard, intended to increase transparency in higher education, the Gates Foundation claims their study will be more comprehensive.

Sue Desmond-Hellmann, the Chief Executive Officer of the Gates Foundation, is co-chair of the commission. Of the commission’s importance, she notes, “As the cost of a credential rises, and student debt goes to record levels, people are actually asking a question I never thought I’d hear: ‘Is going to college a reliable path to economic opportunity?’” As she points out, “This question of value needs to be addressed, and we feel that it needs to be addressed urgently.”

In particular, Katherine Mangan writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the study will focus on three questions:

  • “How much students earn after graduating and how that affects their ability to pay off their college loans.”
  • “How much more money students with certificates or degrees earn, compared with those who end their education at high school.”
  • “How much those credentials help students move to a higher income bracket.”

Desmond-Hellmann introduced the new 30-person commission through a news-media call, stating it plans to focus on “the returns of postsecondary education,” particularly for low-income students and students of color. The commission will include “college and university presidents, other higher education officials, policy researchers, business and nonprofit leaders, advocacy groups, and students.” It will convene four times between now and next summer. Once the commission has completed its fact-finding, which it anticipates doing by the middle of 2020, it will issue a set of recommendations regarding the value of postsecondary education and how to measure that value for students. From there, Gates plans to use commission recommendations to guide its grantmaking decisions, as well as develop policy recommendations and proposals.

While the commission claims it will take race, ethnicity, income, and gender into consideration while measuring how postsecondary education creates value, the Gates Foundation has often failed in the past to view these aspects from a structural standpoint in its education efforts, as previously reported in NPQ. For instance, in the Gates Foundation’s K-12 efforts, Desmond-Hellman led the charge on the Common Core Curriculum, a national set of learning standards. Development of the Common Core Curriculum included $300 million of foundation funding and partnerships with the US Department of Education, as well as other large foundations, but ultimately had little, if any, impact on inequality in US education. This program, in addition to the foundation’s small schools strategy, were top-down policies that often failed to listen to those on the ground. These results also reflect a larger problem of what appears to be a low level of accountability that large foundations such as the Gates Foundation have when their strategies fall short of their promises.

Another troubling aspect of the Gates Foundation’s approach to grantmaking appears to be the staff’s frequent inability to learn from its mistakes, as also previously discussed in NPQ. In a study on the organizational culture of the Agriculture Developmental program at the Gates Foundation, one main issue is the treatment of “farmers…as passive objects of development rather than…complex social actors.” Ruth McCambridge at NPQ wonders about this in the context of the many failed projects the Gates Foundation has begun over the years in relation to education. When considering this history in the context of the new commission on postsecondary education, one has to wonder if the Foundation has learned from these fairly recent mistakes, or if those mistakes are part of a larger cultural disconnect with the actual problems at hand when discussing US postsecondary education.

Much of the data, it would appear, is already available. Even without new data, it is clear that students who come from wealthier families who can finance college will, at the very least, not be stuck with a huge amount of debt upon leaving college. Student debt is a major problem in the United States, with outstanding debt on federal student loans at over $1.3 trillion, larger than all other types of household debt except mortgages. And as Dr. Robert Kelchen, assistant professor of education leadership at Seton Hall University, notes in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “One thing worth emphasizing—the panel is unlikely to bring down the price tag of a college education. Instead, it is focusing on whether programs are worth the price tag.”

The exclusion of the question Kelchen raises is an important missing puzzle piece in the study’s frame. Why, exactly, does a degree cost over twice what it did in 1971, even as hourly wages have grown only 0.2 percent per year since the early 1970s? Additionally, there are income gaps across ethnicity and race in the US that have persisted since 1970, and in many cases, have gotten worse. Shouldn’t the foundation want to have a theory regarding these cost-driver questions?

There is no doubt that retooling postsecondary education to serve as an engine of equality, rather than inequality, is an essential matter. Desmond-Hellmann, who prior to heading Gates, was chancellor of the University of California at San Francisco, acknowledges to Lauren Camera of US News & World Report the high stakes:

“We skimmed the cream,” she says of the students the school accepted. “We took people who were, like, filled with possibilities and life had conspired to put them at the top of the pyramid, so to speak, and then we plucked the top of the pyramid and said, ‘We’re so good.’”

“I’ll never forget the slow recognition I had that that’s what we were doing serially,” she says. “But what does it look like to be inclusive? The system is not working for everyone, so what can we do to create the conditions that challenge that notion?”

We hope the commission can indeed offer data-backed insights to policymakers and the higher education community to change the dynamic that Desmond-Hellmann so aptly describes. However, given the Gates Foundation’s history of top-down, ineffective policy around education, we fear that it will once again fall short of the challenge.—Kristen Munnelly