In August 2011, the freelance journalist Anya Kamenetz published The Edupunks' Guide to a DIY Credential, a free guide for online learners that celebrated "new methods of content delivery, new platforms for socialization, and new forms of accreditation." It included advice like "7 Ways to Get College Credit Without Taking a College Course." And it—along with an accompanying Web site—were made possible by more than $100,000 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Financing journalism is among the many strategies that both the Gates and Lumina foundations use to keep their goals on the national agenda. From 2006 through 2011, according to The Chronicle's analysis, Gates gave $5.4-million in media-related grants to support coverage that included higher education (in addition to grants specifically for elementary- and secondary-education reporting). Among those grants: Some $1.1-million to NBC Universal for a national meeting of "thought leaders" as part of the network's Education Nation programming, and more than $1.4-million to the Education Writers Association to offer training and resources for journalists.
During the same time period, the Lumina Foundation awarded $3.1-million, in grants to media organizations. Those included $1-million to American Public Media Group to cover "the kind of education Americans will need for the 21st century," $600,000 to the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, and $1.39-million to Washington Monthly Corporation.
Those figures are for grants only, and do not include contracts for specific projects. Gates underwrote the National Journal's July 10 "summit" on "The New Knowledge Economy." ("Unfortunately, too many postsecondary programs don't deliver the value that students and their families want and need," read an announcement for the meeting.) It financed two Chronicle of Higher Education Web sites (see disclosure). And it gave a contract to Ms. Kamenetz for The Edupunks' Guide.
As with many higher-education projects it finances, the Gates foundation came to Ms. Kamenetz, rather than the other way around. Her 2010 book, DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, had caught the attention of some program officers there. "They started talking about how they'd like to support my work, update it, and put it out there for free," says Ms. Kamenetz, who describes "some tension" in conversations Gates had with her about the goals of the book. "Their goal is to help people get credentials," she says, while her interest was on the independent spirit of experimental "open education." "They really wanted me to concentrate on how you can translate this into a degree program or something that will get you a job."
Once she started writing, she says, the foundation had "no impact" on the content of the book. "They were totally hands off."
Even so, some people thought the Gates money diminished her credibility. Ms. Kamenetz had "moved away from any pretense of 'reporting the state of education' and into the realm of advocating for a new corporate ed model," wrote one reviewer. Another expanded on that criticism: "You can't just get the 'benefits' offered by a college and somehow 'acquire' an education without that commitment, without that immersion, without that dedication."
Getting Gates money "was a double-edged sword," says Ms. Kamenetz, noting how important it is for readers not to believe a journalist is "in anyone's pocket." But in the end, "I would totally do it again," she says.
The Gates foundation is well aware that it may appear to be trying to buy coverage in line with its strategic goals. In February 2012, Dan Green, the foundation's deputy director of strategic partnerships, devoted a blog post to the topic. "It wouldn't do us, or our grantees, any good to jeopardize their credibility," he wrote, so the foundation discloses all the grants it awards, on its Web site.
Gates gives grantees editorial control, he wrote, and imposes "no restrictions or requirements on content related to the foundation or its grantees."
"I raise this question with our grantees all the time," Mr. Green says in an interview: "Are you willing to take on the perception that you now may be somehow or other compromising your journalistic integrity?" Any such compromise "would be a bad decision for the people running the newsroom and wouldn't be a good grant for us to make," he says.
Lumina may have made an even bigger mark on media coverage of higher education, thanks to its support for the Washington Monthly, whose articles are widely read by policy makers and often inspire coverage in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other mainstream outlets. In 2008 the foundation provided $885,000 to the magazine to try to "change the conversation in the media and among public policy makers by focusing on wholly inadequate student success rates and their impact on the nation," according to the grant description.
As its editor in chief, Paul Glastris, points out, the Washington Monthly is "not a value-neutral publication." Known for its liberal political stance, the magazine had years before developed a college-ranking alternative to the U.S. News & World Report rankings. "The tenor of all of our coverage of higher ed is that the bulk of it is a critique ... of the trend toward prestige-chasing among institutions that leaves working- and middle-class kids behind," says Mr. Glastris. Continued support from Lumina since that first grant has allowed the Washington Monthly to expand its ranking system with reporting resources and "make this the biggest franchise of the magazine," he says. "God bless Lumina."
Mr. Glastris readily acknowledges the deep ties Lumina has to the magazine. "We talk pretty regularly, and it's very much a two-way conversation," he says. "We very much share their goal." Still, the magazine has brought criticisms of both Gates and Lumina to its readers' attention.
"There are legitimate concerns you can have about that much money weighing in on the process," says Mr. Glastris. "I can see in the abstract that it would be of concern, for people who don't share the goals" of the foundations. In his view, though "Gates, Lumina, the Obama administration—they've all come to more or less the right conclusion."
Besides, he says, look at all the corporate money at work behind closed doors in Washington. "I see the foundations as transparent and aboveboard players in a largely murky and questionable war of ideas."
Explore the breadth and quantity of money granted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to higher-education projects compared with the next two largest supporters of reform: the Lumina Foundation and the Kresge Foundation.
The Chronicle has received Gates Foundation money to support two Web sites. Read More.