Stanford, Duke, Rice, … and Gates?

James Yang for the chronicle

July 02, 2009

Dear Bill Gates,

Hi! You don't know me, but I have an idea about how you should spend your hard-earned money. I'll bet you get a lot of that these days.

It's an old idea, a 19th-century idea. But I think its time has come again. Two words: Gates University.

What does that mean? Just what it sounds like! You should build a brand-new university, a great 21st-century institution of higher learning. A university unlike anything the world has ever seen.

The time is right —your foundation, the world's largest, recently announced a big push to improve postsecondary education. It's a terrific move. High-quality college credentials are the key to opportunity in the modern economy. If our higher-education system doesn't get much better at helping more students earn them, your good work in improving elementary and secondary education will be for naught.

But you've also learned from your decade of pushing schools to improve. It's really hard! As you said in your annual letter in 2009, "We had less success trying to change an existing school than helping to create a new school."

Well, high schools are a breeze compared with colleges, which are both more apt to resist change and more skilled at doing so successfully.

You need to prove that newer, better ways are possible. Fortunately, that part is easier in higher education. The problem with high schools is that there are tens of thousands of them, all serving local regions, and they don't pay attention to one another. Higher education is a national market, with only a few hundred elite colleges, in close competition. You won't have to work to get people to watch Gates University. It'll get all the notice it needs —and then some.

What would Gates University look like? To start, it would look like something. It wouldn't be wholly virtual. A university needs a physical center, a beating heart, a place where students and teachers come together and learn.

Admission to Gates U., the place, would be selective —but without the bribery and latent classism that still stain our so-called best colleges. No legacy admissions, once you start having legacies. No buying one's way in, no gentleman's agreements with wealthy private high schools that admit the "right" kind of students. No bias against striving ethnic groups, no special considerations for senators' sons.

And no preferences for athletes, because Gates University won't be running a pro football team on the side. (Seattle already has one, last I checked.)

Who would work at Gates University? Anyone who could do a great job. Maybe professors will have Ph.D.'s, maybe they won't. If a really smart person drops out of college, founds a phenomenally successful business, and decides to turn toward education as a way of giving back, he or she would be welcome to apply for a job. You, for example, would be qualified to teach at Gates U.

There would be no tenure, obviously. I assume you never thought it was a good idea at Microsoft —why have it here? Nor would you sequester faculty members into departments organized around academic disciplines. The world can get by without one more English department or college of business. Gates's programs would cross traditional disciplines, organized around goals for what students need to learn. Faculty time, pay, and status would center on the primary teaching mission.

How would you grant credits at Gates University? You wouldn't. At least not the way colleges normally do, based on time in contact with professors. No credit hours at Gates U., no degrees based on the number of years enrolled. Instead you'd describe in great, public detail all of the knowledge, skills, and attributes that students pursuing a given course of studies would need to acquire. You'd be very open about how you teach those things and how you assess what students have learned. Then you'd grant credentials when students met those academic standards —regardless of how long it takes.

How many students would you serve at Gates University? As many as you can. That, more than anything, would truly distinguish the university from all others.

Many public and nonprofit universities are trying to expand distance education over the Internet. But they're often constrained by their brands, their culture, their fealty to tradition. While the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University, and others are pioneering "open courseware" —well-developed materials available free of charge to individual learners and instructors —many colleges' online divisions are mere appendages, ways to make money and survive. Traditional colleges tend to look at the Internet and say, "How can we use this to keep being what we've always been?" Gates University would use the Internet to be what no university has ever been.

For-profit universities, meanwhile, are surging into the online market. Some provide valuable services, while others are ripping off students and taxpayers. But on some level they all want to provide as good an education as necessary for as much tuition as possible. Gates University would provide as good an education as possible for as much tuition as necessary, to as many students as it can reach.

How many students is that? You made a vast fortune with information technology and economies of scale. More people weren't an obstacle for you —they were an opportunity. How does Microsoft think about the number of people it could sell software to? That's how you should think about the number of people Gates University could serve.

Gates University, the place, would be the center of a global, Web-based institution of higher learning. In the same way that your foundation works to provide low-cost pharmaceuticals and vaccines to developing nations, your faculty members would work hand-in-hand with colleagues around the world to develop curricula, enforce academic standards, and experiment with novel new ways to use technology to help as many students as possible earn high-quality, low-cost degrees.

Because Gates University's standards would be open, the job market would have no trouble accepting its degrees. And I don't think you'll have any problems attracting students. Your name is global currency. People of every nation and culture need higher education, and they would jump at the chance to earn credentials with your imprimatur. Because Gates U. would be nonprofit, you'll price those degrees at cost. Since you'll have no money-losing sports teams, huge libraries full of books, bloated administrative structures, or unproductive professors, I'm guessing that will be far less than what other elite institutions now charge.

And for low-income students learning online, the charge will be even less. Technology and economies of scale are creating huge, largely untapped opportunities to lower the marginal cost of higher education. People all over the world have the talent, motivation, and will to earn degrees from world-class universities. But many of them are poor and isolated and far away. Gates University's mission would be to find those people, wherever they are, and give them the chance to learn.

These are big changes. Some might put you in conflict with accreditors, which are still too focused on fitting universities into a precast mold. But that's OK —it's a fight worth having, and one I think you would win. Indeed, the whole process of building Gates University would generate a conversation about postsecondary education that is sorely needed.

And the great thing about great universities is that they last. In their time, men like Leland Stanford, James Duke, and William Rice were famous for many reasons. But history remembers only one reason.

So don't stop trying to help existing colleges create the higher-education system our nation needs. But don't wait for them, either. You can start building that future today. Gates University: your gift to the world —and worlds to come.

Kevin Carey is policy director of Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington. It has received financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.