In his June 3, 2015 blog, Bill Gates asks students to do something he never did: graduate from college. Gates is a college dropout but believes he “got lucky.” He complains that enrollment in postsecondary programs has grown by over 50% in the past 25 years, but not enough people are finishing college. He’s hoping for 11 million college grads.

I think much of Mr. Gates “luck” stems from his intellectual ability, which is probably in the top one percent. It would be marvelous if we could flip a switch or engage a distance learning module to produce more students who are capable of a true college education. This is unlikely because only the top 25% have a shot at succeeding in an academic college environment. In addition to high ability, they must also be motivated, have acceptable concentration levels, and a good measure of self-control. These factors, which I describe as the four legs of the elephant in my book, The Elephant in the Classroom, make a college education unattainable for most students.

Some debunkers think an IQ score of 110 (75th percentile) isn’t necessary for college work. But even higher ability levels are helpful. One study showed that participants who were in the 99.1 percentile of intellectual ability at age 12 were much less likely to go on to obtain a doctorate, secure a patent, or publish an article in a scientific journal than those participants reaching the 99.9 percentile. David Hambrick and Elizabeth Meinz, “Sorry Strivers, Talent Matters,” The New York Times, November 20, 2011.

Solutions? Gates spoke with Cheryl Hyman, Chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago. She reports doubling City Colleges’ graduation rate since becoming chancellor in 2010. When I checked the site,, I found that The City Colleges of Chicago work with 115,000 students and boast a 14% graduation rate. The graduation rate improved to only 4000 students in 2014, which was double the rate of 2000 students in 2013 and previously.

Hmm. Something doesn’t quite add up. Upon further review, one of City Colleges’ initiatives is career education. More than 150 companies are now helping align curricula and facilities with employer demand. This is good news, indeed.

Also, later in his blog, Mr. Gates includes post-secondary certificates and two-year and four-year college degrees in his definition of college. So when Mr. Gates urges more students to graduate from college, he may not be thinking of just academic colleges or universities. Or is he?

Unfortunately, I believe the data suggest that too many students, not too few, are attending college. This is why enrollment has grown, while four-year completion rates are low. Let’s remember that no one has yet found a way to change IQ or deeply embedded personality characteristics.

Based on the myths that all students are pretty much the same and that all should go to college, Gates views may be hurting students who are motivated for career studies but who are saddled with high-stakes testing and academic courses they will never use in the real world.

Gates gives a myriad of reasons for collegiate failure: He wants to make the college experience easier and the course selection process less confusing. He blames poor preparation in high school and suggests online courses to reduce tuition costs. My experience is that the vast majority of students who have the ability and motivation for higher level academics can integrate themselves into the college culture just fine, on their own.

Gates is enthusiastic about the future of online courses but Hyman believes that some of her students still need face-to-face time with instructors and classmates.

Some –– only some?

While online instruction can be a positive and practical teaching tool, research shows that the successful completion of online courses requires the same skills as college attendance and perhaps puts even greater demands on concentration and self-control. And students coming from poverty need more, not less, hands-on interactions.

Donald R Eastman, a highly-respected educator and president of Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, declared that the University of Florida online college was “an ivory tower delusion.” “The companies who are selling the snake oil of disruptive innovation (Pearson, Coursera, Udacity, etc.) will make millions. The graduates of the University of Florida will have fellow alumni who paid much less for their degrees than they did, saw fewer real professors, and earned their degrees in their pajamas.” Donald R. Eastman, “UF Online College an Ivory Tower Delusion,” Tampa Bay Times, October 20, 2013.

Bill Gates needs to be applauded for his generous donations to education, but his blanket call for more college grads –– without looking at individual student needs –– won’t accomplish much. And in the process, it could hinder career education in middle school and high school, resulting in a higher high school dropout rate and the road to criminality.

I’m reminded of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Surely, having a job and putting food on the table is a higher priority than abstract academic learning and “self-actualization.” I hope Mr. Gates, who is a highly intelligent, giving, and practical person, will get behind early career education.