Interview with Andrew Rosen, Kaplan CEO

An email interview with Andrew Rosen, following up on my review of his book, Change.edu.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

As part of my review of his book, Change.edu: Rebooting for the new talent economy, I had the opportunity to interview Andrew Rosen via email. Change.edu asks some very tough questions and challenges a lot of assumptions, so I wanted to get his perspectives on some of the key themes in the book as well as the questions that those in traditional academic settings will invariably ask as we explore new models for higher education. I've also embedded a video at the end of this post that Rosen produced, talking about the book. Talk back below and let me know what you think about where we're headed in higher education.

How important is the "liberal arts experience"? Not necessarily the Harvard experience, but one focused on what we usually refer to as "well rounded education"? On at least this issue, views haven't changed much in the last 2,500 years: we expect an "educated person" to have good critical thinking and communication skills and a basic knowledge of history, literature, science and math. Today, that's the essence of what we call a liberal arts education, and it's at least as crucial now as it was in ancient Greece. In a world that's changing as fast as today's is, the liberal arts provide a core set of competencies that can be adapted to new environments. After all, the job today's high school freshman will have after college graduation may not yet exist.

That said, a liberal arts education is expensive and time consuming, and there are many people for whom the best education may be a more practical, directed program that provides specific, career-oriented skills. Our higher education system needs to be adaptable and accessible both to those who will benefit from the meandering journey of a liberal arts education and to those whose best route is the streamlined, unbundled, efficient approach of career education.

How can we balance the formative, growing experience that so many of us find in college with the need for greater access? There is a difference between a liberal arts "education" and the liberal arts "experience." The latter is sometimes used to describe not just the education, but the ample luxuries of today's college experience: the sushi bars, climbing walls and fancy residence halls that colleges build to attract students. To my mind, those expensive ancillaries do nothing to educate students, but add considerably to the cost of doing so.

Particularly in tight economic times, we need to focus our education spending on things that advance learning -- not on frippery. Our higher education system today is tilted in favor of those who already have advantages: taxpayers spend enormous sums subsidizing students in our four-year universities, even while working adults and low-income students are being turned away at the community colleges and other adult-serving institutions for lack of funding. We can continue to provide formative experiences for students at our top universities, but when we ask taxpayers to overspend on amenities for the "haves," we're taking away funds that would be better used opening the doors of educational opportunity to more students.

Are there any examples of schools that have moved "down-market"? How has the move gone for them? One of the unfortunate by-products of the prestige-driven approach of traditional American higher education is that scarcity -- i.e., the number of students a university rejects -- is viewed as a top determinant of quality. As long as that unfortunate incentive structure is in place, people will view expansion of access as a reduction in quality -- as moving "down-market." Instead, we ought to be encouraging universities to increase access, to provide more room at the table of opportunity. I admire the few schools that are willing to push against the assumption that rejecting more students enhances the university. Two good current examples, to my mind, are Arizona State University and Syracuse University. Both have leaders who have concluded that their best contribution to their communities will be in attracting more, and more diverse, students. Both have faced criticism, condescension and outrage for doing so. But to my mind, both are moving in exactly the direction our country needs, and I hope they hold up against the attacks. Over time, they will be celebrated for doing so, and in Change.edu I discuss the forces in our economy that will start to drive that kind of change.

Can open courseware produced by top institutions play a legitimate role in instruction at accredited universities and colleges? Absolutely. The Open Courseware movement, and websites like Khan Academy, offer quality content for free. It's only a matter of time before universities start broadly embedding that free content in their programs, helping increase quality and drive down cost in one step, while enabling faculty to focus more on coaching and motivating rather than lecturing.

What are the chances that American industry/business will begin to widely recognize the value of skills training and certification vs. traditional post-secondary education (namely, "college")? It's happening already, but will accelerate in the years ahead. We place an enormous amount of value in degrees, when employers want to know that prospective hires have skills. Over time, certification of skills will matter more than degrees -- particularly if degrees don't come with an accounting of what skills the student has learned along the way. We currently value universities for their signaling value -- e.g., we think we know what a degree from Cornell means -- but over time that signaling value will matter less than documented achievement of learning outcomes. On that score, private sector ("for-profit") colleges are leading: they are more apt to know specifically what their students have learned, and be able to provide a skills transcript to prospective employers.

Many countries outside North America recognize that college is not necessarily for everyone but still work to ensure that there are many opportunities for post-secondary education. If the US does not make structural changes soon around differentiated secondary education, it seems as though we stand to fall even farther behind in skilled labor training. Are there any any good models or exemplars for this approach here? The U.S. has a unitary system of higher education, meaning all post-secondary education from beauty school to a doctoral program in physics are subject to the same funding mechanism, standards, and -- such as they are -- assessments. Some other countries to which we compare ourselves educationally (e.g., the UK and Australia) treat vocational education separate from higher education, and as a result they are better able to tailor their measurement and evaluation systems to the specifics of the task. These systems are good models not just for structure issues, but for the way in which they handle student loans.

What role does the proliferation of personal computing technologies (e.g., laptops and tablets) play in increasing access to educational opportunities? Twenty-five years from now, there will still be plenty of people who pack their bags and move to our most elite colleges for a four-year experience, but many more will be getting their education directly on their mobile devices. The astonishing improvement of those devices, and the concomitant improvement in educational technology, will steadily wear away the perceived quality gap between distance and on-site education -- a gap that is already narrower than most understand. (A recent Education Department study concluded that online already delivers slightly better outcomes than face-to-face, with blended learning performing better than either alone.) As mobile learning continues to evolve, it will become harder and harder for parents to justify the cost of shipping their sons and daughters off to a campus for four years, when an equal or better quality education is available at home or at the workplace. And because that education can be significantly less expensive -- there will be no need for French bistros or football stadiums at a mobile university, and technology will enable delivery of some portions of the education at much less cost -- it will also permit dramatically expanded access. If our regulatory system does not throw up hurdles, we're in for a golden era in education over the next quarter century, one that promises to deliver significantly better learning outcomes, greater access, lower cost, and more accountability than the system we have today. Traditional universities will need to adapt to these new realities, and a wide variety of new players (public, nonprofit and for-profit) will emerge to deliver parts of this new educational system.

Editorial standards