Change.edu: Insights from Kaplan's CEO

Change.edu: Rebooting for the new talent economy is one of the best books I've read on the changing face of education (and the unfortunate turns that our higher education system continues to take).

I recently had the opportunity to read Change.edu: Rebooting for the new talent economy, by Andrew Rosen. Rosen is the chairman and CEO of Kaplan, Inc., the activities of which reach from brick and mortar test prep facilities to 1:1 tutoring to fully online higher education through Kaplan University. As a result, he's in a unique position to discuss the sorts of changes that can drastically shift how we think about higher education and education in general. The book itself is one of the clearest calls to action I've read as we look for real solutions to problems of opportunity, job growth, access, and competitiveness in post-recession America.

Rosen brings forward several themes that fly in the face of our long-held views and beliefs about higher education. Most importantly, he starts the book by calling out Harvard, our oldest and most respected institution of higher learning. The problem with education is not Harvard or highly competitive schools that turn our bright young minds and vital research. Rather, the problem is what he calls "Harvard Envy."

When schools invest millions competing to be the biggest, most sought-after, highest ranked schools, chasing the Harvard ideal, they effectively shut out hundreds of thousands of students badly in need of higher education but unable to afford it or, just as likely, unable to get into increasingly competitive schools. Unfortunately, too many schools end up, as he points out, in a vicious cycle of one-upmanship. My favorite quote from the book describes this problem perfectly:

In retailing, the two biggest success stories of my lifetime have been Wal-Mart and Target, both aimed at mass-market consumers who'd prefer to save money rather than shop in a pricey department store.

Now imagine a university president who tries to employ the same strategy. "We're currently ranked in the second quartile of the US News & World Report rankings, " she tells her board of trustees one day. "But we think there's a better market for us if we drop down to the third quartile. We'll eliminate some programs, some high-priced faculty, and our sports teams, and be able to cut prices and increase enrollment. We'll be able to fill the dorms. We won't have to give so much financial aid. We'll get more revenue, and it's a sustainable strategy.

While these conversations happen in board rooms around the world every day, as Rosen points out, "any president who suggested this strategy would be run out of town." While there will always be a place for the Harvards of the world, there is also very much a place for market-driven decision making in education that would allow more students to access higher education without incurring hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt (and costing taxpayers billions in grants and subsidies).

It's a powerful argument that he makes throughout the book, outlining ways that market differentiation and decisions based on sound business sense, pedagogy, and philanthropy instead of prestige can have a very positive impact on the growing gap between this country's need for skilled, educated workers and our ability to produce them cost-effectively.

Clearly, the role of technology will be critical to improving access and delivering education cost-effectively and to underserved populations. Online learning, skills-based training outside of traditional undergraduate degrees, and tech-enabled community outreach through local colleges and community colleges can all contribute to a new model for higher education at scale. None of this diminishes the role of our major research universities, but Change.edu asks us to look carefully at our assumptions about what higher education should be and how we can use all of the tools, entrepreneurship, and emerging models to reach a goal of a highly educated populace that can truly compete in a global economy.

This book is a highly recommended read for anyone struggling to reconcile ideas and preconceptions of higher education with the economic realities and technological possibilities of 2012.

For more information, check out my email interview with Andrew Rosen.

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