Bill Gates Delivers Rare Graduation Speech, Slams College Rankings

The Microsoft founder is fed up with the the dysfunctional exclusivity of the traditional college ranking system.

Bill Gates in a red robe.
Bill Gates attends a ceremony at Addis Ababa University in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on July 24, 2014. AFP via Getty Images

On Saturday (May 13), Bill Gates delivered a commencement speech at Northern Arizona University (NAU) in Flagstaff, Ariz. The retired Microsoft cofounder, who never completed college, doesn’t speak at graduations often. He’d given only two commencement addresses before—one at Harvard in 2007 and the other at Stanford in 2014—which made his appearance at a mid-tier public school in Arizona even more special.

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NAU ranked No.317 out of 443 four-year colleges in the U.S. last year, according to the U.S. News and World Report. But that ranking does no justice to the university’s true value, Gates said.

“Something remarkable and all too rare is happening in Flagstaff: The school is redefining the value of a college degree,” the 67-year-old philanthropist wrote in a blog post on his personal website, GatesNotes, on May 9.

“In America, the value of a degree from any given school is traditionally thought about in terms of how prestigious and exclusive the school is,” Gates wrote. “Ironically, the more students a school accepts and the easier it is to attend and graduate from, the lower that school has traditionally been ranked. That’s an inverted incentive if ever one existed.”

NAU’s undergraduate acceptance rate last year was 78 percent, whereas Harvard and Stanford had an acceptance rate lower than 5 percent, according to the U.S. News and World Report.

Gates argued today’s conversations about higher education focus too much on the students’ existing credentials, such as test scores and extracurriculars, instead of what students can learn from a college experience and, more importantly, how well that learning could translate into jobs.

NAU is redefining what makes a good college

NAU, founded in 1899, is a leading university in promoting student racial diversity and the affordability of higher education. More than 45 percent of the school’s nearly 30,000 students are people of color, primarily Hispanic, according to the university’s website. That far exceeds the percentage of racial minorities in the state of Arizona, which is nearly 62 percent White.

About half of NAU’s undergraduate students are first-generation college students, and many come from low-income families. To further open the door to aspiring college students, this year NAU launched a universal admissions program, which redirects unqualified applicants to apply to community colleges and guarantees later admission to NAU as transfer students. The university also provides scholarships and advising services for community college students who intend to transfer.

These programs are all in line with Gates’s personal vision for higher education. In 2019, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation formed a commission in partnership with the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a Washington D.C. nonprofit, aimed at better defining and measuring the value of college education.

“The commission landed on a new way to define the value of a college education—by the payoff it provides to students and society—and a better way to measure it: by putting aside exclusivity, and putting accessibility, affordability, and economic mobility at the center instead,” Gates wrote in his May 9 blog post. “By that definition and those metrics, NAU is an emerging leader.”

Bill Gates shares the wisdom he wishes he was told

At Saturday’s commencement ceremony, Gates shared with NAU’s graduating class of 2023 wisdom on life and work, including “the five things I wish I was told at the graduation I never had,” he said in prepared remarks.

“What does a college dropout know about graduation? Not much, personally, to be honest,” Gates told the audience. “As I prepared for today, I spent a lot of time thinking about how you, as new graduates, can have the biggest impact on the world with the education you received here.”

Gates’s five pieces of life advice for college grads:

  • Your life isn’t a one-act play
  • You are never too smart to be confused
  • Gravitate towards work that solves a problem
  • Don’t underestimate the power of friendship
  • You are not a slacker if you cut yourself some slack

Gates dropped out of Harvard University in 1975 as a sophomore and never completed his undergraduate study. Nevertheless, he has received more than half a dozen honorary doctorate degrees from universities around the world, including Harvard. On Saturday, the Microsoft cofounder received another honorary doctorate from NAU.

Bill Gates Delivers Rare Graduation Speech, Slams College Rankings