The Gates Foundation Messaging Machine

This week a report was released by HCM Strategists and Edge Research, funded by the Gates Foundation, on the important topic of the mindset and perspectives of high school graduates aged 18-30 who chose to not go to college or who dropped out of a postsecondary program. The US higher education system has seen more than a decade of enrollment declines that has been accelerated by the pandemic, and there is a lot of value in understanding the non-consumers. The report release was covered broadly by trade media (Inside Higher Ed, the Chronicle, Higher Ed Dive).

As I dove into the coverage from IHE, however, I noticed something that might be problematic from a research perspective.

Terrell Halaska Dunn, a partner at HCM Strategies, said while enrollment has dropped precipitously during the pandemic, especially at community colleges, the declines have been occurring for more than a decade, and the goal of the study is to explore why.

“We wanted to really try and understand what’s driving these enrollment drops,” she said. “What’s making people choose something other than college? We’ve been making the case, backed by data, that higher education provides the best opportunity for social and economic mobility, that a college degree really represents the best long-term value for people. So why aren’t those arguments persuasive with an increasing part of the population?”

Wait – is this a research report trying to understand perspectives of those who chose to not to pursue a degree, or is this an advocacy post with pre-ordained outcomes? And what a monolithic assumption that the college degree is obviously the answer, followed by another assumption that the main challenge is getting people to realize this simple truth and just support them in making the pre-ordained decision.

Go to the Source . . . If You’re Allowed

Maybe I was being too cynical and was taking this quote out of context. The obvious answer to me was to go read the report itself and see if it was fundamentally biased by these assumptions or not. This was when it got interesting.

All media stories pointed to a Gates Foundation blog post summarizing their analysis of the findings, and these findings were shared with the media in a video call. But there is no link to the actual report, although a footnote points out “Please refer to the full report for detailed information about the study’s methodology.”

With funded research, it is important for the funding source to not exert undue pressure on the researchers. So I went to HCM Strategists web site, and there was no mention of the report or even the press release event. Nothing. The site does show that HCM is in the advocacy business, which is fine as long as the report and data are available. Then I went to Edge Research and was pleased to see that they are not in the advocacy business, they are market researchers. But again, no mention at all on their web site.

What we have is the Gates Foundation funding and controlling the messaging, and they are telling the public how to interpret the findings they partially release. It may be that the report was well-designed and eliminated any Gates or HCM biases, but we have to trust these groups.

Backed by Data . . . the Mantra

To explain why this issue concerns me is that there are other interpretations of data on what is best for 18-30 year old high school graduates in the US. Simply viewing the problem as we know what is best for potential students, why don’t they get it? is a limited and faulty perspective.

Maybe part of the problem is that for many postsecondary degree programs, students are not well served and college is not a good choice. Sure, most STEM degrees, legal degrees, and medical degrees might to be the best bet for those fields, but what about alternative lower-cost credentials in other areas? What about the possibility that the idea of a college degree makes sense, but too many institutions are doing a poor job, and the degrees don’t pay off in reality? I know, maybe there is not one answer for all high school graduates. Simply stating “backed by data” is not that convincing.

At least some of the report seems to tease out these issues. There was at least one question hitting on this topic and shared by the Chronicle, and the results from the survey respondents seems to have a lot more nuance than that from the HCM partner quoted above.

These are not just people who blindly skipped or dropped out of college without considering options, as there are some interesting perspectives here. A four-year degree tied for second in terms of perception of “excellent” value and a two-year degree as seventh, whereas there are a lot more options these days (which the findings in the media release did acknowledge). Given how the report findings were released, however, it’s hard to get over the disconnect between survey respondent perspectives and that of the primary researchers.

Back to the Report

What would work better in this situation is if the Gates Foundation, HCM, and Edge Research would release the entire report and let interested people see what biases if any are built into the design and whether they agree with the researchers’ analysis. And let HCM and Edge Research speak for themselves, and not just in a Gates-controlled media video call.

It would also help for media organizations to recognize when they are being used to amplify a message and ask reasonable questions about data transparency. Maybe they got to see the actual report under embargo, but if so, no one mentioned it and there was no independent analysis presented.

This is an important topic, and there are some good nuggets coming from the report. But we need better than messaging machines to help us learn.