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Originally published Monday, July 15, 2013 at 8:50 PM

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Report critical of Gates Foundation’s higher-ed impact

A national newspaper that covers higher education questioned whether Gates Foundation funding for higher education is too focused on short-term career goals. The foundation pushed back.

Seattle Times higher education reporter

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A well-respected national newspaper that covers higher education has published a package of stories that describes the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as having an outsized influence on higher-education policy, one that narrowly focuses on programs that lead to short-term employability.

In the stories published Monday, The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote that the Seattle-based foundation has funded research, advocated reforms and helped build a consensus among other foundations, state lawmakers, policy advocates and the Obama administration that emphasizes “graduating more students, more quickly, and at a lower cost, with little discussion of the alternatives.”

The Gates Foundation pushed back. “The alternative — graduating fewer students at a higher cost over a longer period of time — is not serving the needs of most students,” Daniel Greenstein, director of postsecondary success for the foundation, said in an email.

The Chronicle report says some policy leaders and analysts are uncomfortable with the future Gates is promoting: “a system of education designed for maximum measurability, delivered increasingly through technology, and — these critics say — narrowly focused on equipping students for short-term employability.”

The critics say they are concerned the emphasis on getting students to graduate could cause schools to water down their requirements, or turn away less-qualified applicants.

They say they are concerned the efforts “could actually increase social divisions by creating separate and unequal programs.”

The report further said critics who don’t agree with the Gates approach “see their expertise bypassed as Gates moves aggressively to develop strategies for reform.”

Greenstein responded that the foundation’s strategy goes beyond short-term career goals. He said many students are trying to raise a family and hold down a job while starting or finishing a degree program.

“We are focused on removing structural barriers so that the higher education system works better for more students,” Greenstein said. “It is not about job training, but rather about building a career that will provide long-term opportunities.”

The foundation also disputed The Chronicle’s analysis of how much it is spending on higher education. The Chronicle calculated it at $472 million since 2006, which would make the foundation the largest funder of higher-education policy in the country. Greenstein said some grants made to K-12 programs are included in that calculation.

The Chronicle report also notes that the foundation has kept its reform goals on the national agenda by supporting news organizations that cover higher education.

That includes The Chronicle itself, which has received two contracts totaling about $850,000 from the foundation to support work on two stand-alone websites, College Completion and College Reality Check.

The Seattle Times recently received a grant from Solutions Journalism Network to explore some of the vexing issues of educational reform in K-12 and higher education, and to write about potential solutions. The Gates Foundation is a major funder of Solutions Journalism Network, and provided much of the money for the grant.

The Chronicle report says the foundation is at the center of a national movement to tie funding to college-completion rates. Washington is listed as one of 16 states with performance metrics in place

In Washington, though, use of those metrics has been hobbled by a lack of funding.

The state’s funding model is called the Student Achievement Initiative, and began in 2006 as a way to offer incentives to community colleges that did a good job of helping students build college-level skills.

The metrics rewarded colleges when students stayed in school after the first year; completed college-level math; and finished a degree, certificate or apprenticeship training.

Marty Brown, executive director of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, said the Gates Foundation provided some funding to help the colleges develop the initiative.

He said the foundation “was very helpful at the beginning, and not demanding about what they wanted measured.”

Initially, the Legislature gave the 34 colleges about $1.5 million for incentive funding. But during the economic downturn, the Legislature cut all funding for the program.

The colleges still continued to collect performance metrics, and evaluated programs accordingly.

Despite the lack of money, the program is still considered a success, Brown said, because it caused college administrators to pay close attention to a variety of measures.

Brown said he had met with a group called Complete College America, which is funded by the Gates Foundation and advocates performance-based funding. Although the group appears to like Washington’s metrics, Brown said, the two models aren’t the same, and “we’re not ready to change our metrics.”

“We think ours fit our system,” he said. “You sometimes have to choose. Sometimes the money isn’t worth it.”

In its last session, the Legislature appropriated $10 million over two years to fund the Student Achievement Initiative. In the budget, it also created a task force to create a performance funding model for the state’s six four-year higher-education institutions.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @katherinelong.

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