New Gates-funded commission aims to put a value on a college education

The Gates Foundation is poised to disrupt American higher education with new a Postsecondary Value Commission. As its name suggests, the commission aims to define the value of a college degree.

Among other things, the commission plans to “aid policymakers in gauging what the public gets for its investment in higher education.” If Congress listens to the commission, it could become harder for students majoring in the liberal arts or humanities to secure a federal loan or grant.

As a political scientist who researches education policy, I anticipate that the country will move to a two-tiered system. It will be one in which the affluent will be able to acquire a liberal arts education at elite private institutions, while students who depend on federal financial aid will be steered toward career-focused majors at public universities.

In effect, the country will have one higher education system for the rich and another one for everyone else.

The goals of the commission

The Gates Foundation has convened this commission to address a real problem: student debt. Total student loan debt in 2019 is $1.56 trillion. There are 44.7 million U.S. borrowers with student loan debt.

The commission will address a question that is on the minds of many families, policymakers, and taxpayers. And that is: Is college worth it?

The commission will propose a definition of college value to guide policy conversations. In a conference call with reporters, Mildred Garcia, the commission co-chair, shared that she had just spent a day on Capitol Hill talking with legislators. She stated that “we are definitely hoping” that the commission’s work will “affect” the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act that controls – among other things – how federal student aid is disbursed.

Just as the Gates Foundation pulled off a revolution in K-12 education with its support for the Common Core, the foundation is serious about using policy advocacy and lobbying to enact “institutional transformation” of higher education.

For instance, commission member Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, recently noted how a recent move by President Donald Trump to focus more on outcomes of specific programs at colleges and universities is “one more step toward a widely supported movement to reorder higher education as we have known it.”

Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, is a member of the new Postsecondary Value Commission. Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce
“In a shift toward program-level outcomes, every college will be unbundled down to the program level – its identity, traditions and structure will become less important,” Carnevale wrote in opinion piece titled, “The Revolution is Upon Us.”

“Instead,” Carnevale wrote, “the outcomes of students in each particular major or field will be elevated in importance.”

Carnevale seemed to be aware of the potential threat this poses to the liberal arts. He wrote that society will have to “think of new models for assuring core liberal arts curricula that are essential to the well-rounded learning that students need.”

Impact in question

While the Gates commission aims to educate students and families about which colleges and majors are a worthwhile investment, this approach alone may not have much impact.