Bill Gates on the Future of College

At the National Association of College and University Business Officers Annual Meeting on July 21, 2014, Bill Gates delivered an address on the “Future of College” in America. A transcription is on Mr. Gates’s blog.

Looking at the individual level of opportunity, do people have equal opportunity? The data we see shows that, unless you’re given the preparation and access to higher education, and unless you have a successful completion of that higher education, your economic opportunity is greatly, greatly reduced. There’s a lot of data recently talking about the premium in salaries for people with four-year college degrees. In 2013, people with four-year college degrees earned 98 percent more per hour, on average, than people without degrees. That differential has gone up a lot. A generation ago, it was only 64 percent.

If you look at the numbers more closely, you will also see that unemployment, partial employment, is primarily in people without four-year degrees. Our economy already is near full employment for people with full year degrees. And, so, the uncertainty, the difficulty, the challenges, faced, if you haven’t been able to get a higher education degree, are very difficult already today. And, with changes coming in the economy, with more automation, more globalization, that divide will become even more stark in the years ahead.

So, if we’re really serious about all lives having equal value, we need to make sure that the higher education system, both access, completion, and excellence, are getting the attention they need.

It is unfortunate that, although the US does quite well in the percentage of kids going into higher education, we’ve actually dropped, quite dramatically, in the percentage who complete higher education. We have, amongst developed countries, the highest dropout rate of kids who start. And, understanding why that happens is very, very important. For many of those kids, that experience is not only financially debilitating, being left with loans that are hard to pay off, but, also, psychologically, very debilitating, that they expected to complete, they tried to complete. And, whether it was math or getting the right courses, or the scheduling, somehow, they weren’t able to do that, which is a huge setback.

Worth the read in entirety.

Admission Rate to Prestigious Colleges Hits All-Time Low

“Admissions directors at these institutions say that most of the students they turn down are such strong candidates that many are indistinguishable from those who get in.”

That’s from this New York Times piece, which cites that Stanford accepted an ultra-low 5% of candidates this year.

Part of the reason for such low admission rates? It’s way too easy to apply to multiple colleges with the common application, compared to the way it was less than a decade ago:

At the same time, students send more applications than they once did, abetted by the electronic forms that have become nearly universal, and uniform applications that can make adding one more college to the list just a matter of a mouse click. Seven years ago, 315 colleges and universities accepted the most widely used form, the Common Application; this year, 517 did.

Standing Out from the Crowd: A College Essay to Princeton

The New York Times features four student essays that stood out from the crowd in the college application process. They are good, but I wanted to highlight Shanti Kumar’s essay in particular, written as an urgent appeal to Princeton University. The essay is well-developed and beautifully written. Here it is in its entirety:

I wonder if Princeton should be poorer.

A New York Times article geared towards helping Americans slice their end-of-year charitable pie quoted Peter Singer, a Princeton Professor of Bioethics, saying that, “The marginal difference my dollar can make to an organization that already has a large endowment is not as great as one given to an organization that helps people who have almost nothing.” The article went on to explain how Singer donates absolutely nothing to Princeton and has talked other alumni into giving less. In fact, he questioned the morality of donating to any institution, church, or cultural activity that did not directly serve the desperately poor, particularly those in “faraway places.” Singer is calling for the newly added words of “Princeton in the service of all nations” to be put into action — and I would like to help.

I sat at the breakfast table in my pajamas wondering how many of Princeton’s donors read that article. If these alumni take this professor’s words to heart, Princeton may see a decline in their annual donations’ yield — unless Princeton decides to channel its money towards the causes that the school’s leadership implied when they expanded Princeton’s service to all nations. Prof. Singer condones and even promotes this shift in assets, making him a unique and different voice in a multibillion-dollar institution.

‘Different’ is what I have searched for my whole life. In particular, a different way of thinking. I never understood why I was the only one whose hand shot up in history class when the teacher asked a broad question about Africa, but when she asked us to name the 15th century Queen of Spain, hands waved around me like tree branches twisting furiously in the wind. This blindness to everything non-Western continued outside of the classroom. No one ever talked about the things outside of their occidental bubble – the bubble of the comfortable, warm, well-fed Occident. It wasn’t even a bubble; it was an opaque, porcelain snow globe. On the bus ride to school my friends lamented that the city might take away our free student Metrocards, blind to the fact that other kids didn’t have schools to walk to. Were we selfish to demand our Metrocards? No. Were we unaware of our relative global status? Incomprehensibly yes.

It is my belief that a different way of thinking is budding at Princeton. I want to breathe it, taste it, engulf it, make it my own, and use it for the purpose of spreading it. How can we privileged people hope to aid the formation of global solutions if our thinking is limited to the 1136-by-640-pixel screens of our smart phones? If our thinking is not global in scope, our dreams and solutions will remain capped.

I have a cousin and a dream.

In this dream, my cousin and I are sisters across the sea, she in the waves of heat over northern India and I on the banks of the Hudson River. She is sharp, cheeky, and much better at cooking than I am. When we were young, she found great joy in getting her slender brown fingers caught in the knots of my chestnut curls, never knowing how much I envied the glossy black shawl that cascaded from her scalp to her shoulders.

In this dream, she has a life and a name.

In reality, she died when she was six months old, a half a world away, about a year before I was born.

To this day, no one has told me her name.

My cousin died of a digestive tract abnormality, a birth defect that would have been easily diagnosed and treated with surgery had she been born in midtown Manhattan like I was. In the throes of dusty hospitals equipped with obsolete instruments, however, her defect was overlooked and she died a slow death of starvation. If I had known her, I would have promised her one thing: to do everything in my power to bring health, justice, and empowerment to the marginalized people of the developing world.

I believe that global inequality is rooted in the ideas that are taught in schools and portrayed by the media in everything from talk shows to textbooks. Most people are afraid to peek through the cracks in their snow globe and see what exists beyond their merry blizzard. I will not be the doctor who saves the next dying child, nor will I be the engineer who maximizes solar energy harvesting with cheap materials, but I can be the writer who makes the voices of the underrepresented heard. I want to unfurl the idea that change emerges from empowered people who can demand their rights, and that it is augmented by people who believe that accidents of geography should not impede these rights. I dream that my life’s work and writing may stimulate and chronicle the development of a more just and equal world.

In terms of this cause, one of the best uses of Princeton’s money is the international Bridge Year Program. According to Singer, “The only way to justify giving something to educational institutions that are relatively well off is if they produce people and knowledge that will help solve the world’s problems.” This is one manifestation of Princeton’s role in the service of all nations that is worth every cent. These cents won’t be going towards towering turrets and terrific tennis players, but rather towards increments of global consciousness.

Value lies in how money is used, not the power that it fosters while lying in accounts. Could more of this money be used to expand the global consciousness of Princeton’s student body, which in effect will change the mindset of some of the world’s most powerful future leaders? If you agree that the use of Princeton’s endowment could change to unlock the potential of its service to the world, please take a fiscal chance and accept me to Princeton University.

Bravo.

The College Application Process Isn’t What It Used To Be

Back when I was applying to college, if I was wait-listed or was deferred, I would just sit back and do nothing about it (luckily that didn’t happen; I applied to only three schools). Not today’s teens, however. Not only are they sending physical letters to colleges, many students are putting themselves out there via social media, making videos on YouTube, and the like:

Ms. Wolfbauer, of Carver, Minn., says she has written the admissions department to tell it “how much I want to go there and why Hamilton has been my No. 1 choice since the beginning of my college search”; she sent in “a lot of high school projects,” including one that won a statewide competition; and last weekend she started filming a video with friends — teachers to be added later — “basically telling them how awesome I am, talking about the positive qualities I have and why Hamilton should accept me.”

Does she ever worry it might be too much? “I more worry that I’m not doing enough,” she said.

Especially not while other students on waiting lists are bombarding their dream schools with baked goods, family photos, craft projects depicting campus landmarks and dossiers of testimonials from civic and religious leaders, to name just a few come-ons that admissions offices have seen over the past month.

The Times compiled some of the video pleas here. Below, a few of the ones I’ve watched:

 

Good luck to all the wait-listed students out there!

Gaming the College Rankings

In education news this week, there’s a big story on an administrator at Claremont McKenna College who admitted to falsely reporting SAT statistics since 2005. The scores for each fall’s freshman class were generally inflated by an average of 10-20 points each. While seemingly insignificant, these scores most likely affected Claremont McKenna’s overall rankings in the U.S. News & World Report for best colleges.

The New York Times notes that in recent years, colleges have been gaming the system by twisting the meanings of rules, cherry-picking data, or simply lying:

In one recent example, Iona College in New Rochelle, north of New York City, acknowledged last fall that its employees had lied for years not only about test scores, but also about graduation rates, freshman retention, student-faculty ratio, acceptance rates and alumni giving.

Other institutions have found ways to manipulate the data without outright dishonesty.

In 2008, Baylor University offered financial rewards to admitted students to retake the SAT in hopes of increasing its average score. Admissions directors say that some colleges delay admission of low-scoring students until January, excluding them from averages for the class admitted in September, while other colleges seek more applications to report a lower percentage of students accepted.

What I don’t understand is why there isn’t some standardized system for colleges to report their scores, admissions statistics, and the like. For example, when I take the SAT or the GRE, the company who administers the tests forwards my scores on my behalf. There is no ambiguity that these are my scores, and they are valid. I understand that colleges aren’t obligated to report their figures, but I think some kind of verification process would be helpful for millions of students that rely on this kind of data as they are (supposedly) making an informed decision about which college they want to attend.

On AP Exams and College Credit

I strongly disagree with Michael Mendillo’s argument of not letting high school courses count for college credit. He argues:

Advanced Placement courses are taken by students 15 to 18 years old. At those stages in their education, students focus on remembering facts and, under the best possible situations, learning the methods of assembling and evaluating those facts. For high-school students who do well in, say, AP physics, that would be a terrific start to being a physics major. They could enroll in the highest introductory-level freshman physics course offered. The original goal of the AP concept would have worked.

For students not majoring in science, however, that same success has quite a different consequence. Lost to these nonscience students is an exposure to cutting-edge science and the methods of science taught by professors active on a daily basis in their exploration of nature. In how many AP classes in high school does the physics instructor say, “At the last American Physical Society meeting, one of my students presented a paper on this very topic”? Or, in an astronomy class, “My upcoming observations using the Hubble Space Telescope will address this dark-energy issue”? Identical scenarios exist, of course, for science and engineering students who miss out on university-level introductions to the humanities and social sciences taught by active scholars in those areas.

The end result is that in many introductory college courses, the top students are simply not in the classrooms. For them, faculty-student interactions are not possible and the overall value of a university education is diminished. All of these aspects of educational disservice are due to the existence of the AP system.

I took ten AP courses in my high school. The remarkable difference between the AP courses and the regular (“gifted”) courses I took was that the AP courses were significantly more difficult, thorough, and taught students invaluable comprehension skills (rather than rote memorization). I believe that AP courses are actually superior to many freshman college courses. In an AP course, you are instructed five days a week for a semester (and two semesters for subjects like biology and chemistry). You can’t compare that to college courses taught three times a week and condensed into one semester.

The AP exam is a three hour duel; it is more comprehensive than the typical college final. If you received a 5 on AP Biology or AP Calculus, I have no doubt in my mind that you know your stuff and should rightly get the chance to skip these introductory courses in college. I did and I never regretted my decision. In fact, because I exempted out of so many introductory college courses, I was able to take fewer courses every semester, which allowed me to devote more attention to each of my classes than I otherwise could have done with a denser schedule. As a result, I asked more inquisitive questions, had a chance to work on extracurricular problems, and learned the material more deeply than if I never got my AP credits.

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What do you think? If you’ve taken AP courses and did well on them, how did you feel about exempting those courses in college?

On Intelligence vs. Motivation

One user on Reddit writes:

I’m a senior in high school this year, and will be graduating come June. I have had all A’s throughout high school except for last year when I got my first B. If it weren’t for that B, I would have been valedictorian.

I like to think that I deserved to be valedictorian; that I am truly the smartest in my class. However, this past year has shown me that I’m really not that intelligent, and that there are many others who are much smarter than I.

Also, I’m kind of an asshole about how smart I am, at least to myself. I’m always telling myself that I was cheated out of an A, but deep down I know I deserved that B. Not only that, but I should have gotten B’s in several other classes as well, but I somehow managed not to get them.

Recently I took the SATs as well, which I got a 1900 on. I figured I was just being lazy, and could have gotten a much better score if I tried. So after taking them a second time, I thought I did much better, but I only got roughly 40 more points than last time.

When I was younger I always believed I could get into MIT, but it has become painfully clear that I stand next to no chance of getting in. I now realize that I am probably going to go a lame local college and stick with my family.

Many people offered their thoughts, but perhaps this response from user Inri147 that was accepted and enrolled to MIT is particularly enlightening:

Term rolled in and I was getting crushed. I wasn’t the greatest student in high school, and whenever I got poor grades I would explain them away by saying I just didn’t care or I was too busy or too unmotivated or (more often than not) just cared about something else. It didn’t help that I had good test performance which fed my ego and let me think I was smarter than everyone else, just relatively unmotivated. I had grossly underestimated MIT, and was left feeling so dumb.

I had the fortune of living next to a bright guy, R. R. was an advanced student, to say the least. He was a sophomore, but was already taking the most advanced graduate math classes. He came into MIT and tested out of calculus, multivariable calculus, differential equations, linear algebra, real analysis (notoriously the most difficult math class at MIT), and a slew of other math courses. And to top it all off, he was attractive, engaging, sociable, and generally had no faults that would make him mortal.

I suffered through half a semester of differential equations before my pride let me go to R. for help. And sure enough, he took my textbook for a night to review the material (he couldn’t remember it all from third grade), and then he walked me through my difficulties and coached me. I ended up pulling a B+ at the end of a semester and avoiding that train wreck. The thing is, nothing he taught me involved raw brainpower. The more I learned the more I realized that the bulk of his intelligence and his performance just came from study and practice, and that the had amassed a large artillery of intellectual and mathematical tools that he had learned and trained to call upon. He showed me some of those tools, but what I really ended up learning was how to go about finding, building, and refining my own set of cognitive tools. I admired R., and I looked up to him, and while I doubt I will ever compete with his genius, I recognize that it’s because of a relative lack of my conviction and an excess of his, not some accident of genetics…

From my personal experience studying at Georgia Tech and Caltech, I think one of the most important lessons I had to learn was how to ask for help. And that it was okay to do so. There is nothing humiliating about asking for help if you are truly trying to make an effort to understand the material.

MIT has an almost 97% graduation rate. That means that most of the people who get in, get through. Do you know what separates the 3% that didn’t from the rest that do? I do. I’ve seen it so many times, and it almost happened to me. Very few people get through four years of MIT with such piss-poor performance that they don’t graduate. In fact, I can’t think of a single one off the top of my head. People fail to graduate from MIT because they come in, encounter problems that are harder than anything they’ve had to do before, and not knowing how to look for help or how to go about wrestling those problems, burn out. The students that are successful look at that challenge, wrestle with feelings of inadequacy and stupidity, and begin to take steps hiking that mountain, knowing that bruised pride is a small price to pay for getting to see the view from the top. They ask for help, they acknowledge their inadequacies. They don’t blame their lack of intelligence, they blame their lack of motivation. 

Very worthwhile advice.