Yesterday I got to meet and interview Bill Gates, along with five other writers and reporters. We sat around a conference table at a midtown Manhattan hotel. Gates, wearing a totally unassuming gray suit and sipping Diet Coke out of a glass bottle, was business like and to the point. His passion flared up a few times during the hour-long conversation. He vehemently pushed back against economist and blogger Tyler Cowen's suggestion that macroeconomic and population growth, as well as better roads and other infrastructure, could bring faster humanitarian relief to Africa than more direct health interventions like vaccinations or contraceptives, which the Gates Foundation funds. Discussing the bleak living conditions in the Central African Republic and Yemen, Gates said, "If you don't invest in health there, you're a cold-hearted bastard." In a rare personal comment, he discussed how one of his daugthers was moved by video footage of a child survivor of polio limping down a dirt road. "What did you do to help her?" she asked her dad — an insightful comment, since Gates said he feels growing concern about the survivors of once-deadly childhood diseases like malaria and polio, who often arrive at school with cognitive delays that make it difficult to learn.
On education, I think a few of Gates' comments broke news. He hinted that his foundation may soon invest resources in alternate rankings of American colleges, saying the true metric for success in higher education should be whether a school accepts a student "with a combined SAT score of 600, and they got $100,000 jobs, and they're super happy." In response to several questions from yours truly, he also discussed standardized testing and teacher evaluation at length, particulary in non-traditional subjects such as art and music. Gates said he isn't sure if good tests can be created in the arts, and he called Florida's plan to move forward quickly with such non-traditional testing "crazy," as well as something that could create a popular backlash against education reform.
In response to Jason Kottke, Gates briefly addressed his reputation as one of the world's most celebrated college drop-outs, and I thought his comments were interesting considering the backlash against college coming from Peter Thiel and some other Silicon Valley luminaries, who tend to imagine upper middle class kids and the Ivy League when they hear the words "higher education." First, Gates correctly pointed out that community colleges and four-year public universities make up "the heart and soul of education in America," and that those schools are currently operating under severe budget constraints, which hinder their ability to move the working poor into the middle class. Second, he said the number of successful tech entrepreneurs or programmers without a college degree is "a rounding error, that's why it's so mythic," and added that he had enjoyed college and "I'm just about as fake a drop out as you can get," since he loves lectures and left Harvard only to pursue the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to launch Microsoft.
Lastly, in response to Jacob Weisberg, Gates addressed the potential of MOOCs–massive online open courses–to transform higher education, saying such classes would not live up to their full potential unless they enroll more low-income students and provide some sort of counseling or support to guide students through completing the MOOC and ultimately attaining some sort of credential. Currently, most MOOCs are seeing drop-out rates of up to 80 percent, and are reaching a fairly privileged audience.
Head on over to The Atlantic to read my full report.