Bill Gates weighs in on higher education, newspapers in interview with The Daily Texan

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Bill Gates speaks to computer science students and various special guests at the ribbon cutting ceremony of The Bill & Melinda Gates Computer Science Complex and Dell Computer Science Hall. The building was made possible by generous grants from both the Gates and Dell Foundations. 

Photo Credit: Debby Garcia | Daily Texan Staff

Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft and co-chairman of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, stopped by campus last week for the opening of the Bill and Melinda Gates Computer Science Complex, which will be the new home of the computer science department. Gates granted The Daily Texan an email interview, in which he weighed in on topics ranging from  the value of higher education to the role of newspapers.

The Daily Texan: Your focus has shifted from being a major player in Microsoft to being an active philanthropist, especially concerning finding a cure for malaria. At what point did you decide to direct your attention to more humanitarian endeavors, rather than continuing to push the limits of innovation, and why?

Bill Gates: I am still chairman of Microsoft, but I stepped down from working there full time in 2008 to devote more of my time to the foundation. Innovation is an integral part of my work with the foundation, and I believe the most difficult problems in the world can be solved by pushing the limits of innovation. Sometimes it means coming up with a whole new thing, and sometimes it means making smarter use of the resources we already have, and developing a new approach. Take vaccines, for instance. They have saved millions of lives and fundamentally changed the world. Today, there are millions of lives that can be saved just by better use of the vaccines we already have. And, then there are other diseases – like malaria – that don’t yet have a vaccine. Malaria vaccines are an area of intensive research, but there is no effective vaccine that has been introduced into clinical practice. I am optimistic a malaria vaccine will be developed. And, we are investing in research to help make that happen.

DT: In Texas, there has been debate at the state level over how much students actually learn in higher education and what the value of higher education really is. As someone who is financially successful without completing a higher education degree [Editor's note: Gates dropped out of Harvard in 1975 but received an honorary degree from the school in 2007], yet someone who continues to fund tools for students to receive top-notch educations, what is your position on the true value of getting a degree?

BG: The data on the value of a college degree is pretty clear. Today, 97 million U.S. jobs require high-level skills. Yet only 45 million Americans currently qualify for these positions. By the year 2018, 63 percent of all jobs in the U.S. will require some form of postsecondary education. Over an adult’s career, on average, college graduates will earn almost $1 million more than high school graduates. In addition, the unemployment rate for college graduates is about half that of those with a high school diploma. Although I didn’t complete my degree, I was very close. I didn’t leave school because I was bored or because I didn’t see the value in completing my education.  I left because I believed we had a small window of opportunity to launch Microsoft. But, since that time I have certainly taken a lot of college courses – either online or on DVD. It’s one of my favorite things to do – so I’d have to be described as an enthusiast when it comes to higher education.

DT: What should universities be doing in order to better serve students in gaining real-world experience and skills; what sort of higher education reform do you see as most critical to students now?

BG: While times have changed, America’s postsecondary education system has not kept up with what our students and families need to succeed: smarter, affordable options that lead to high-quality outcomes. Technology now makes it possible to bring world-class expertise to all students – no matter what their circumstance or where they live. We support efforts that rethink the traditional classroom experience and leverage technology to structure instruction based on student achievement and reaching students where they are – while still providing teachers with the flexibility to be innovative and enhance the learning experience for all students. Other important issues to address in higher education are affordability and completions rates. I’m interested in exploring how financial aid can be used as an incentive, not just for access to college, but also for completion.

DT: Many students may not feel they are “tech-savvy” enough to work in the tech industry, or that they aren’t familiar enough with the basics such as coding, etc. What advice would you have for those students who have ample creativity but not necessarily the skill set for pushing the boundaries of what computers can do today?

BG: Many students may have interests that don't fit the traditional academic mold of sitting in a class and learning coding, or they may not think of themselves as “techy.” That shouldn’t limit their aspirations. Other students might be in remote locations, or maybe they have families, jobs, or other responsibilities that don’t make it practical to take on life as a full-time student. But, if a person truly is interested in new technology and new ways of learning, there are so many ways to gain the necessary skills. There are great online resources like the Edupunk’s Guide, which is an e-book that offers a comprehensive guide to learning online and helps people figure out their own path to an affordable credential. It has tutorials like: how to write a personal learning plan, how to teach yourself online, how to build your personal learning network, 7 ways to get college credit without taking a college course, etc.

DT: What do you think the role of newspapers is in an ever-digitizing world? As newspapers such as The Daily Texan continue to decline in print revenue and struggle to create a profitable business model, how do you hope to see journalism catch up as other industries rapidly become more tech-oriented?

BG: Nearly every major industry has been transformed through technology, and the news industry is no different. There will always be a need for people to get information, and the way that we produce and consume that information will continue to evolve and change. We’ve seen this with radio, magazines, television, and of course newspapers. Newspapers have developed online content and social networks, and some of the most successful papers are finding a way to be agile and thrive in this ever-changing environment. I think it will be interesting to see how these changes continue to take shape in the months and years ahead.

DT: What is your favorite TV show, current book you’re reading, and favorite most underrated movie?

BG: Most of the TV I watch is either online or on DVDs – and I look at a lot. I’m working on a couple of books right now. I just finished Poor Numbers by Morten Jervens, which probably isn’t a book a large number of people will read, but I found it really fascinating. It explores how to look at well-being, particularly in the developing world, and report it.  GDP isn’t always a correct measure of how countries are really doing. But, I’ll admit that it may not be on everyone’s ‘must read’ list.  But if you’re involved in global health and development, like we are at the foundation, it’s really an important book.