WASHINGTON – Former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates credits an 1862 law for changing American higher education forever by showing that equity and opportunity do not need to compromise excellence.
“If the nation had chartered a different course 150 years ago,and education had continued to be reserved for the select few,there’s no doubt that we’d be less competitive today,” Gates said. “Instead,we decided to build something new and better,and we created these universities that are the envy of the world.”
The Morrill Land-grant Act,which expanded higher education by proving federal land or money to states to establish public universities,reached its sesquicentennial this year.
“American public colleges and universities do the finest research in the world,” Gates said. “You create knowledge … to improve people’s lives.”
Gates,who dropped out of Harvard as a junior to start Microsoft,said he is awed by the students at these universities.
“It’s always impressive to me to see the energy these students put in to get an education,” Gates said. “It’s a leap of faith,of course,that you’re going to spend four years and that’s going to do something great for you.”
Gates discussed what public universities need to do to make this “leap of faith” worth it to students,as this is what he called “the golden age of innovation.”
He said education advocates have been looking at international competitors recently and are seeing that these countries are copying the U.S. college system.
Yet,in some areas,such as graduation rates,some of those nations are doing better than the U.S.,Gates said.
Of the 24 countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that reported first-time college graduation rates in 2008,the U.S. ranked 13th,according to the National Center for Education Statistics’ 2011 Youth Indicators report.
The U.S. had a graduation rate of 37 percent. Finland had the highest graduation rate with 63 percent,followed by the Slovak Republic and Iceland,with 57 percent each. Turkey,Mexico and Luxembourg had the three lowest graduation rates.
Between 1995 and 2008,the United States had only a 4 percentage point change,the lowest increase of the reporting countries,according to the report.
The percentage of U.S. adults with college degrees was about 5 percent in 1940. It rose steadily in the following decades.
“What that says to me is that we need to double down,” Gates said.
Gates said the high cost of education and too much emphasis on selective admissions are problems.
“Fewer people of those who want to attend universities are getting in,and those who do get in are paying more,” Gates said.
Gates said public universities need to let in as many people as can be successfully educated and at the lowest possible cost. He said universities need to find better ways to spread around their financial aid,despite having less money.
He encouraged the university leaders to embrace new educational technology,including online classes and evaluation tools,because it can help with efficiency and quality.
Michael F. Adams,president of the University of Georgia,said Gate’s references to increased online education “makes a lot of sense.”
He said he likes Gate’s idea about rewarding professors and other instructors who work well with students.
Though Adams said there were a lot of positive things about Gate’s speech,he didn’t think Gates said anything “revolutionary.”
Charles R. Bantz,executive vice president of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis,said Gates coming to the event was important.
“He did go to a private institution,and for him to be a strong advocate of public universities and our mission to provide access and success,as well as do research,is impressive,” Bantz said.
Reach reporter Chris Jessen at [email protected] or 202-326-9868. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.