Press Room




Bill Gates: Morrill Act Sesquicentennial

June 26, 2012

Thank you, President Milliken.

I’m grateful for your invitation to address the APLU on this special day, and to express my gratitude I brought this bag with me.

This bag is helping 10 million people lift themselves out of poverty.

Farmers in Central and West Africa grow black-eyed peas because they’re hardy and protein-rich. Unfortunately, tiny pests called weevils destroy half the crop after it is harvested and stored….

…Or they did, until researchers at Purdue University developed this three-layered, polyethylene-and-nylon bag. It costs $2, it keeps out the weevils, and it increases poor farm families' incomes by 25 percent.

This bag is the result of one of many partnerships our foundation has with APLU member institutions across the country.

American public colleges and universities do the finest research in the world. You create knowledge, not just for its own sake, but to improve people's lives. On behalf of our foundation, I want to thank you for that.


But I am here today to talk about another of your great accomplishments: the education you provide to almost 5 million students.

The Morrill Act created a system of public colleges to, quote, "promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes." There were two breakthrough ideas contained in that single sentence. First, that higher education should be both liberal and practical—that it should address society's needs. And second, that all people should have the opportunity to obtain it.

These two ideas amounted to a brand new vision for higher education, based on the conviction that a bigger and more diverse group of well-educated people would be an asset to our democracy and a boon to our economy.

This vision powered America's economic dynamism for more than a century. Your graduates helped build a prosperous country.

Recently, education advocates have started to highlight international comparisons, to make the point that American students are falling behind. I've seen the data and it scares me, too. But one thing is certain. When it comes to the research, teaching, and learning happening at our top universities, the United States is still the very best in the world.


However, two current trends in higher education are guiding you down a path that may lead you away from your historical commitment to equity and opportunity.

First, you're trapped in a downward financial spiral. In the past generation, state funding per full-time student has fallen by 25 percent. The current fiscal crisis is accelerating this trend. In just the past five years, for example, my home state of Washington has cut funding for higher education by 17 percent. As a result of this divestment and the steadily rising cost of running your institutions, the financial burden of college has been shifting to students. They now pay an average of $45,000 out of pocket for four years of public school.

Federal money helped bridge the gap…for a while. The stimulus package propped up state budgets for a couple of years, but those dollars have run out. The Pell program has more than doubled in the past decade, but that's not sustainable either. Pell faces an $8 billion funding gap in 2014.

At the same time, you are trapped in an upward status spiral. When the U.S. News college rankings come out, you're judged by how selective you are, by how many highly credentialed faculty you have, by the size of your resources, and even by other people's impressions of your academic reputation. In the absence of agreed-upon measures of effectiveness, you're competing against each other for the markers of exclusivity.

I understand the perverse incentives at work, but this zero-sum competition can hurt the young people who live in your states. To take one example, acceptance rates at many flagship universities now hover around 50 percent—and that's not counting all the students who don't bother applying because they have no hope of being admitted.

In short, fewer people who want to attend your universities are getting in—and those who do get in are paying more.

This cannot continue if you want to achieve your mission. In fact, you have to reverse both spirals. You have to let in as many people as you can successfully educate, and you have to get them through at the lowest possible cost.

Private universities can boast about their selectivity if they choose to do so. But you are public institutions. Your prestige comes from your commitment to equity, opportunity, and excellence. You do not acquire status by keeping students out. You build status by letting students in and giving them a high-quality education.

And so I have come today to ask you for your leadership. You can steer our universities out of these dangerous spirals by making innovation a priority for the sector you lead. One hundred and fifty years ago, your predecessors started a new conversation about the purpose of higher education. You can start the conversation about the changes required to keep on serving that purpose.

For example, we can move beyond the question, “How can we get more public funds?” Unfortunately, in the short-term, there won't be much additional money. The rising share of both state and federal budgets committed to health care leaves very little room for flexibility. The mathematics are simply brutal.

And whether there is more money or less money in the long-term, we should focus on the next challenge—figuring out ways to use it, particularly the money devoted to financial aid, to get significantly better results for students.

There are two principles to keep in mind. The first is that aid should be structured to provide incentives—for institutions and students—to raise college completion rates. The six-year graduation rate of APLU institutions is just over 60 percent. The four-year rate is less than 40 percent. But what if aid were somehow tied to institutional practices that are proven to boost graduation rates? What if it encouraged students to reach important milestones toward graduation?

We cannot be agnostic about whether aid subsidizes failure or success. The goal is success: a degree, in the shortest time possible, for every student who puts in the necessary work—without creaming the most prepared students and without sacrificing quality.

Policymakers are starting to think about what some of these incentives for completion might look like in practice. I hope you will join them. You and your students will have to live with the policy changes that are coming, and those changes will be more effective if you contribute your expertise early in the process.

The second principle for reforming financial aid is to make need-based aid a priority again. In the past 30 years, the percentage of aid money going to students without demonstrated financial need has tripled. This is a consequence of the upward status spiral; giving the top students scholarships is a great way to persuade them to pick your institution. But it also means you're spending a larger share of your precious resources to educate the students who need the least help. Colleges add the most value when students who come in less prepared leave with the same knowledge and skills other graduates possess.

Reserving your aid money for students who need it also serves your economic mission. Educating a student who might not otherwise go to college generates a much higher return on public investment than defraying the cost of an education a student would have paid for.

We also have to change the conversation about educational technology. We can no longer ask, "How do we use technology to augment the education we’re currently providing?" The financial spiral means that the education we're currently providing, or the way we’re providing it, just isn't sustainable. Instead, we have to ask, "How can we use technology as a tool to recreate the entire college experience? How can we provide a better education to more people for less money?"

We have already started to see significant promise in several areas. Adaptive software personalizes instruction so that students can spend more time on the concepts they're struggling with. Hybrid models of instruction improve the quality of the collaboration between students and teachers. Simulations and gaming can engage students in creative and applied ways.

But it will take your leadership to get these innovations beyond the pilot stage, where they only reach a fraction of your students. Once you take it to scale, educational technology can change your financial calculus while giving more students the opportunity to earn a degree.

There are many interesting models to build on. Austin Peay State University in Tennessee recently created an e-advisor system called Degree Compass. It gives students an individualized list of suggested courses by cross referencing their transcripts with data from hundreds of thousands of past students' transcripts. It works the same way Netflix suggests movies, but instead of just suggesting classes students will enjoy, it suggests those that will help them advance the fastest.

Across the United States, the average student graduates with 20 percent more credits than necessary, usually not because they want to sample the curriculum but because they cannot get the courses they need when they need them. Applications like Degree Compass can address that problem and help institutions forecast how many spots they'll need to make available in key courses. The early results at Austin Peay have been promising. Students do almost half a letter grade better in classes suggested by Degree Compass than in classes they pick the old-fashioned way. Similar systems at other universities are improving retention rates by more than 5 percentage points.

And systems like Degree Compass just help students manage the complexity of meeting their requirements; they have nothing to do with what happens inside the classroom, where educational technology can lead to fundamental improvements in learning.

Arizona State University recently redesigned the introductory math courses taken by 8,000 freshmen, many of whom are not prepared to do college-level work when they enroll. In place of lectures, they developed hybrid classes. The students use adaptive computer software to master the basic concepts. This enables professors to work with students in small groups and help them apply concepts and solve complex problems.

The results in the first year were impressive: Completion rates in developmental math went up 17 percent while costs went down by a third, with large numbers of students finishing weeks before the end of the term. The future of public higher education depends on innovations that get results like this.

Another promising area is MOOCs, or massively open online courses, like Edx and Coursera. Coursera offers more than 40 courses from the University of Michigan, as well as Penn, Princeton, and Stanford, for free to everyone. Theoretically, these courses could serve millions of people, which has the potential to fundamentally change the way universities are organized.

I know some critics worry that technology will eliminate the personal interaction that's central to a high-quality education. But when technology is well-conceived and thoughtfully implemented, it can strengthen those interactions. As the ASU program shows, technology has the potential to free up time for more meaningful relationships between professors and students. MOOCs create networks of students with similar interests that can enrich the learning process.

The field of educational technology is still in its infancy. We have a lot more to learn about which approaches work for which students in which contexts. And technology can't do everything. But the schools that choose to be at the cutting edge of innovation in this field will show everyone the way forward. Over the past decade, APLU institutions have grown at 2 percent a year. With advances in e-advising systems, interactive learning, and web-scale models like MOOCs, how many more students could you serve? 


For 150 years, higher education has been a source of strength for our country. No nation in history has endeavored to send as many young people to college. And your institutions prove that equity and opportunity have never compromised excellence. If the nation had charted a different course 150 years ago and education had continued to be reserved for the select few, is there any doubt we'd be less competitive today? Instead, we decided to build something new and better—and we created universities that are the envy of the world.

That is why young people keep applying in ever-greater numbers. That is why they are willing to take on tens of thousands of dollars in debt to get a degree. Because they know the education you provide is the key to the future they want so badly. They know you can make their dreams come true.

But now we face a crisis, just like we did in 1862. How do we cope with serious budget constraints without sacrificing the high-quality education on which society relies? Can we innovate and be as effective with the most challenging students as we are with the most prepared ones? Can we apply resources in new ways so that the higher education system serves everyone who wants access to it?

Asking and answering these hard questions is the key to building on the legacy that you inherited and that you now hold.

It is the key to the future of our country.

I have great optimism that you will once again summon your genius for innovation—that you will see clearly where higher education needs to go and then lead us all there.

Thank you.

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