The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has announced a new set of priorities for its advocacy work in support of expanding college access and success.
As outlined in Postsecondary Success Advocacy Priorities (15 pages, PDF), the foundation's new priorities are focused on building a supportive policy environment in four areas — data and information, finance and financial aid, college readiness, and innovation and scale — with the aim of making postsecondary education more flexible, personalized, affordable, and straightforward. To that end, the foundation will work to create a national data infrastructure that supports the consistent collection and reporting of key performance metrics for all students in all institutions that are essential for reforming the higher education system; advance postsecondary finance and financial aid approaches designed to enable more low-income and at-risk students to finish their degrees; replace remedial education models with evidence-based approaches; and support the development and oversight of programs with time and credit requirements that fit better with career and family obligations.
The foundation will engage these priorities at three levels: federal; across states on key issues; and within a smaller group of states that includes California, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington. According to the paper, the foundation's near-term focus will be on the areas of data/information and finance and financial aid, in part because it sees "'money and measures' as representing the most powerful incentives — and disincentives — for action in postsecondary education, and thus [requiring] concerted effort, particularly given their complexity and controversy." Later this year, the foundation will release a common metrics framework that draws on the work of voluntary institutional and state data initiatives to measure institutional performance and progress with respect to key indicators such as student access, progress, completion, cost, and post-college outcomes.
Another early agenda item will be the simplification of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which currently includes a hundred and eight questions. The foundation is working with higher education associations to come up with a compromise between the two-question form proposed by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and President Barack Obama's proposal to cut thirty question from the form, Daniel Greenstein, the director of education and postsecondary success in the foundation's U.S. program, told Inside Higher Ed.
"This is about us providing policies based on what we know will provide the greatest leverage for change and in some instances based on what we know works," said deputy director of postsecondary policy and advocacy Gabriella Gomez, who served as assistant secretary for legislation and congressional affairs at the U.S. Department of Education before joining the Gates Foundation last August.
Some critics who have called the foundation's approach overly prescriptive were cautiously optimistic. Scott L. Thomas, a professor and dean at Claremont Graduate University's School of Education Studies, told Inside Higher Ed he likes what he sees and thinks the foundation has done a better job in the last three years of bringing in more voices from the academy, including researchers and faculty members. "Their agenda," said Thomas, "has become more sensitive to a variety of expert views."