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Summary:

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has spent $472 million on higher education but, according to a report, it’s accumulating critics along with its influence.

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The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the most active nonprofit players in higher education — to the tune of $472 million. But according to an exhaustive special report in The Chronicle for Higher Education this week, its money and advocacy is rubbing many in the academy the wrong way.

Given the scope of its activity and funding, it’s hard for the foundation to not be a target for critics. And it’s been the subject of educational debate in the past: Education historian Diane Ravitch has been among its most vocal detractors of its pro-privatization efforts in K-12 education and, earlier this spring, the Gates Foundation rankled some parents with its new initiative to aggregate mounds of student data with the goal of personalizing learning.

In higher education, the Chronicle reports that the foundation’s approach to the field as “an engineering problem to be solved” is making academics and analysts concerned about the long-term consequences for institutions and students.

For example, some critics worry that a focus on measurability and experiences delivered via technology will help prepare students for short-term employability but not necessarily long-term social mobility. They also fear that bringing more students into institutions through massive open online courses (MOOCs) and other methods could lead schools to lower their standards and lead to more divisions among colleges and universities. An underlying issue, says the Chronicle, is a feeling among some academics and administrators that the foundation brings mistaken assumptions to the table and that those assumptions are generated by outside think tanks and researchers, not those based inside universities.

“They start with the assumption that something is broken. Then they take the next step of deciding what the fix is before they really understand the problem,” Patricia A. McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, told the Chronicle.

Despite the criticism, it’s hard to argue that the Gates Foundation hasn’t enabled positive innovation and research: for example, at a time when most of the conversation around MOOCs focused on motivated students, the foundation announced grants supporting MOOCs for remedial students. It’s funded and created coalitions for exploring new technology, like adaptive learning, and it’s underwritten research that’s led to new tools and findings.

But considering the foundation’s huge influence, it’s important that people inside and outside the academy examine and question its actions. What’s particularly troubling about the Chronicle’s report is it seems that many of the people best-equipped to debate its positions on higher education policy – from private-college presidents to researchers and lobbyists – don’t want to pipe up because they don’t want to hurt their chances of someday winning a Gates Foundation grant. And that’s a shame because colleges and universities, not to mention the general public, would benefit from a more complete conversation about the future of higher education.

  1. Shocking… academic incumbents think the innovative future of education brought forth by change is bad… Wake up your industry is changing and figure out a way to stay relevant by helping improve it rather than lamenting those that are.

    What standards should their be for an education? privileged kids willing to mortgage their lives? Instead of trying to place standards on getting an education there should be ways of measuring the education you have as a starting point for learning or hiring. Seems like exactly what they’re trying to do, makes sense to me.

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  2. and parents? until they care & take a more active role in their child’s life/education, it may never get better.

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    1. Agreed parents need to be given homework. The school can’t be the only ones educating our youth. We need to inform and educate parents on how to be teachers at the same time we’re teaching the children. Perhaps rewards or progress indicators for parents helping their children learn. It is clear parents have to take their childrens education into their own hands as well.

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  3. mrpopsodaw@msn.com Wednesday, July 17, 2013

    “They start with the assumption that something is broken. Then they take the next step of deciding what the fix is before they really understand the problem,” Patricia A. McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, told the Chronicle

    The power of money is being used for good. I believe the Gates Foundation takes consideration and researches (not assumes) something is broken. There understanding of the problem is evident in the work they accomplish. Education is becoming privatized, higher education has for decades been privileged by revenue. Public education is failing because of public autocracy not because of the public intent for good. Power of position is the revenue here. Education is a right, just like liberty. Go and get-em Gates.

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  4. I am 55 years old and love the opportunity to be able to study again without taking some kids place in university. May MOOC’s grow strong!

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  5. This is a good news…
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  6. Am Kevin Yerry Dome who resides and studies at University of Nairobi, I have school fees problem, am taking ECONOMICS, Can I get assistance from Bill gate foundation I kindly request!

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  7. Academics are just jealous. They think they’re on top of the world and nobody else is allowed to come up with better ideas.

    Read more comments in “The Chronicle of Higher Education” and you’ll see how snobby they are. They worldview is so upside down and they’ve been locked up in their ivory towers their whole life, thinking that the world owes them.

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