"Change.edu": 3 Pros and 3 Cons

For-profit higher ed evangelists, agnostics, and critics should all read Change.edu. If you are inclined to see for-profit higher ed as a positive force for innovation in post-secondary education (as I am), then you will find much to like in Rosen's argument for the place of proprietary institutions in the higher ed ecosystem.

January 4, 2012

Change.edu: Rebooting for the New Talent Economy by Andrew S. Rosen,  Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Kaplan, Inc.   

Pro 1 - An Articulate Argument: 

For-profit higher ed evangelists, agnostics, and critics should all read Change.edu. If you are inclined to see for-profit higher ed as a positive force for innovation in post-secondary education (as I am), then you will find much to like in Rosen's argument for the place of proprietary institutions in the higher ed ecosystem. If you are a critic of for-profit institutions, then reading Rosen is a great way to get to know your enemy.  If you remain undecided if the growth of for-profit universities represents a positive or negative development, then Change.edu will give you a range of arguments and data points to ponder.  

Whether a fan or a skeptic the Kaplan's, U of P's, Capella's, Strayer's, Walden's, and DeVry's, you will find Rosen's writing to be smart, engaging, and well-reasoned. Rosen has done his homework for writing Change.edu, bringing together a range of data with some compelling storytelling about the changing landscape of higher ed. Rosen spends time visiting community colleges, private non-profits, and other for-profits (outside of Kaplan), and he creates a persuasive case for the service that proprietary institutions can bring to the higher ed marketplace.

Pro 2 - A Balancing Force: 

The non-profit higher ed world has not done enough to include for-profit institutions into our community. We have largely failed find opportunities to collaborate with and learn from our colleagues in the for-profit sector.  How many joint presentations featuring representatives from non-profits and for-profits take place at conferences? How well represented are for-profit institutions on the planning committees and boards of our professional organizations? How much joint research have we done with faculty and administrators from for-profits?  

I think we have largely misjudged and misunderstood the motives and values of people who manage and teach for for-profit schools, as my strong sense (and experience from doing some work with these folks) is that they see themselves as educational change agents. You may disagree with the arguments that Rosen makes in Change.edu, but I don't think you will come away from reading his book doubting his passion for improving the quality and availability of higher education.

Pro 3 - Free for Kindle Owning, Amazon Prime Members:

If you own a Kindle, and are an Amazon Prime member, then you get to read Change.edu for free. This is one of the books available in Kindle Owner's Lending Library. The selection of free Kindle books available for borrowing is not that great, Change.edu should make your list.

Con 1 - Where You Sit Is Where You Stand:

The major critique that any reader of Change.edu will have is that Rosen is not a neutral and dispassionate analyst of for-profit higher ed. As CEO of Kaplan this is simply not possible. Rosen is quick to own up to some past abuses in recruiting, even at Kaplan. And of course he goes to some length to argue that not all for-profits are created equal, and that some (like Kaplan) are in the business for the long haul, and therefore will not be tempted to pump up short term revenues to sacrifice long-term value. The main issue I have with Change.edu is that Rosen seems unable to acknowledge that the growth of for-profits higher ed is a symptom of our societies failure to adequately invest (at every level) in higher education. 

If we devoted the public funds that we should be directing towards public education, rather than spending scarce tax dollars on prisons and out-of-control health care costs, then the need for proprietary higher ed would be much diminished.  Public education, particularly community colleges, are simply more affordable than private providers.   The difference is made up for in loans, and even if these are eventually re-paid (as most education loans are), paying them off is a challenge for recipients (even if they do graduate).   This is not an argument against for-profit higher ed, as these institutions are clearly fulfilling a strong need in the marketplace.  This is not even an argument against providing student loans for attending for-profits, as these loans are a good investment from a spending perspective (as again, almost all are eventually paid back).  Rather, this is an argument for more money for public higher ed - the best possible counter to the growth of the for-profits.    

Con 2 - A Lack of Insider Details:

I hope that Rosen or his colleagues (at Kaplan and other for-profits) write a follow-up to Change.edu that provides detail into the workings of a for-profit institution. Change.edu is written for a general audience as an argument for a more balanced and positive view of proprietary education. The story I'm interested in is for higher ed insiders. We want to learn the specifics of how a for-profit differs from a non-profit. I'm very curious about the inputs that go into the development of courses. What LMS platforms are used?  How are the resources between learning designers and faculty divided. What sort of staff is hired to develop the courses and run the business? How much of the revenue goes to instruction (and faculty) vs. other expenses (from technology to marketing)? How does governance work? 

Just as I think the non-profit higher ed world has not been inclusive enough of our for-profit colleagues, I think the leadership of the for-profits has failed to be appropriately transparent about their institutions. It is in the long-term financial interest of for-profits to share best practices and resources with other educational institutions.   For-profits need to be seen as contributing to the common good beyond the education and degrees they offer to their own students. Given that for-profits are primarily funded by public dollars (through government student loans), they need to demonstrate public benefits.  Since for-profit institutions are not about creating new knowledge (which is fine), they can focus on diffusing best practices and resources around teaching and learning.

Con 3 -  A Lack of a Roadmap for Evolution:

My third critique of Change.edu is that Rosen fails to explore where Kaplan and the other for-profits should go from here. Can the for-profits accomplish anything beyond incremental improvements in the development and delivery of higher ed? My sense is that the for-profit providers do a better job than higher ed as a whole in bringing a systematic approach to course design, faculty development, and student retention.   Not knowing the specifics of these efforts, however, make it difficult to verify this assertion (again the need for greater transparency). 

While improvements in course design and innovations in technology enabled learning (from simulations to mobile learning to predictive analytics) are certainly exciting, I was hoping that Rosen would offer a few new big ideas.  So here are some suggestions:

  1. Make big investments and contributions to the open education movement by making available curriculum, educational media, and simulations you have developed under a Creative Commons license. 
  2. Extend your technology platforms, from LMS to media management to lecture capture, to community colleges. 
  3. Follow the example of MITx and offer free or low-cost certificate online education courses and programs.  
  4. Open up your faculty development materials under Creative Commons.  
  5. Make anonymized student data available for research purposes.  
  6. Offer funding and data for independent research on student learning and economic outcomes.

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