Here’s a headline that should grab your attention: college dropout becomes one of the most influential figures in education. Of course, when you’re talking about a ‘dropout,’ Bill Gates is anything but typical. With a score of 1590 out of a possible 1600 on his SATs, Gates was a shoo-in at Harvard University. However, he arrived at the Ivy Walls with little in the way of a clear academic plan. What did fascinate young Gates was the computers on campus -- and after a couple of years, the budding techie decided to leave academia and put his energy into a start-up he called Microsoft, and the rest is history.
In 2000, Gates stepped down from his day-to-day duties at Microsoft, and moved over to serve as co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Ranked as one of the world’s best endowed philanthropic organizations, the foundation funds a wide-reaching range initiatives, however, education seems to be its keystone issue. Long concerned with early childhood and K-12 education, now the foundation is broadening its focus to include post-secondary education.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, Gates spoke at length about the state of college education in the U.S. -- and never one to pull his punches, he is brutally frank about technology and its past, present and future role in higher education. He points to experiments with putting the latest tech gadgets in the classroom as having a "really horrible track record," and he raises questions about the effectiveness of some aspects of online education.
But don’t get the idea that Gates is lapsing into some kind of a latter-day Luddite. Nor does he set himself up to be some sort of guru. He seems to view both his role and the role of the foundation as change-agents, that keep working toward a ‘better better,’ or as he says, “ "to learn, make mistakes, try new things out, find new partners to do things."
Some of the projects in post-secondary education that the Gates Foundation is funding involve the ‘flipped classroom’ concept, where students attend online lectures from world-renowned professors, then use their actual in-class time to work on group projects and individual problem solving, with time built in for tutorials for those needing extra help. Looking to the future, Gate thinks this is one way for colleges and universities to vastly improve retention and graduation rates.
“...top universities often only have a 60-percent completion rate. And the average university will have something like a 30-percent completion rate. So you have an immense amount of wasted resource, and students who end up with a big loan and sort of a negative experience in terms of their own self-confidence,” Gates says. “And so that failing student is a disaster for everyone. And yet there's been surprisingly little put into finding out who does it well.”
However, if this ‘drop-out’ has anything to say about it, not only is he willing to underwrite getting to the bottom of this problem, he and his foundation are ready to invest in making major improvements.