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Some of the most amazing people in higher ed don’t work for colleges or universities. They work for companies that work with colleges and universities. Dientje Francis-Lawrence is an example of one of those amazing people. She has been working for the last 15 years to help universities grow their online programs. As the global head of partnershipDientje Francis-Lawrence, a Black woman with her hair in long braids who is wearing hoop earrings and a turtleneck. growth and transformation at Kaplan, Dientje is deeply involved in the emerging story of nonprofit (university) and for-profit (company) collaborations. Dientje graciously agreed to answer my questions about her career path, the role of companies in academia and where she sees higher education heading.

Q: One of the most common conversations I find myself in nowadays is with traditionally trained academics who are wondering about career options outside of a traditional tenure-track faculty job. You have a doctorate in education from Johns Hopkins University and, before that, some years as an educator. You have primarily worked in ed tech, most recently at Kaplan. Can you share with us your education and career journey and why you decided to build your career in an ed-tech company and not a university?

A: Growing up, my biggest dream was to get a university education. My dad taught me the value of an education in changing lives and pushed me to be the first one in our family to get a college education. I came to the U.S. from the Commonwealth of Dominica with just enough money to pay for one semester of tuition. When my funds started to run low, I began to worry that I’d have to leave the country, but one perceptive faculty member found out and lobbied the school to give me a full scholarship. That scholarship changed my life. I went on to graduate at the top of my class and then on to complete an M.B.A.

Before my M.B.A., I was a teacher. After my M.B.A., I wanted to pursue a different path, so I found this little start-up that was right in the cross-section of education and business. We focused on helping universities really scale large programs online.

At the time, there was still some stigma around online learning. I remembered the financial barriers I had going to college because of financing, and I knew that there were all kinds of nonacademic barriers to getting a quality education, especially for adult learners.

This role gave me the opportunity to help universities solve the access challenge that so many students face. As I have worked with universities over the last 15 years or so, my work has not only helped transform university policy and process in favor of the adult learner, but I feel like I am doing now what that one professor did for me so long ago: I am removing barriers for learners, barriers that should never have been there in the first place.

After I completed my doctorate, I thought about going to work at a university, but at Kaplan, I get to make a difference across so many universities and learners. I have the ability to influence outcomes for so many more learners of diverse backgrounds this way. I have found that to be tremendously rewarding.

Q: How has education changed from the days in which you were an educator? What are the biggest differences between today’s landscape and what you experienced many years ago?

A: There’s a lot of discussion that I didn’t hear back then about the value of a college degree. That’s a controversial topic, for sure, but it’s definitely a conversation worth having.

We’re seeing employers removing the degree as a requirement. We’re seeing them invest in upskilling and reskilling their employees. We’re still seeing college enrollment dropping, and as someone who really believes in a university education, that’s a little bit disheartening. In the face of rising college costs, younger Americans are making choices about their lives and careers that are a lot less degree focused than they used to be. More than ever, students want to be in control of their own learning. They want and expect to co-design their learning and credentials at their pace and at a price point they can afford—debt-free education has become the goal for many of these students.

There are still many high school graduates really nervous about getting into the right school and focused on getting into their dream school, but we are seeing those numbers decline. We are also seeing a rising number of high school graduates choose more entrepreneurial paths—with technology as the enabler. In addition, we know they will have multiple careers, right?

So, there’s no one degree that’s going to prepare them for every job they’ll be hired to do. I think there is a rising sense that universities need to respond to these trends and have to transform to do so effectively. And I think universities, albeit slowly, are addressing those concerns—which ultimately have to do with better connection and alignment of education with marketable skills that set students up for success in the workplace.

Arguably, the dialogue on skills has been going on for some time, but now universities and employers are actually increasing investment in skills development—real action is being taken. And Kaplan is supporting both universities and employers in meeting skills needs. We have a strong sense of the value of a university education, so we want to help our university partners further transform to meet the needs of learners and employers today.

Q: There are many versions of what the future looks like in terms of online education and training. Where do you see trends or paths that may take hold in the future? What’s Kaplan’s role in shaping or reacting to that?

A: It’s clear that robust and effective online learning programs are becoming a critical part of the future for most colleges and universities—we already see this taking hold. That’s not to say that all courses will go strictly online or revert to strictly in person, but what the pandemic has accelerated is the introduction of options.

I think one common trend that will continue is students wanting to learn in different ways. In a 2021 Student Voice survey, conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse and supported by Kaplan, nearly 80 percent of college students said that they want lectures made available online so they can go back and review. And almost half say they want the option of whether to attend courses in person or online.

To that end, we’re already seeing a lot of institutions leveraging a hybrid model. What I think we’ll keep seeing is learners will increasingly expect to direct their education instead of being told what their education should be—whether it’s modality, whether it’s content, whether it’s length or price. Additionally, the widespread adoption of online education means it’s becoming increasingly borderless, so I think we’ll see growing global competition as students are able to discover and access learning programs across the globe.

Kaplan was founded on the belief that education opens doors—empowering students to achieve their life goals. This has become particularly relevant in the face of a changing workforce that’s highlighted a gap between education and employability. Our focus has always been on outcomes-based learning that helps students and professionals advance, originating with preparing individuals for high-stakes tests.

Today, we also help universities attract and support students and help employers recruit, develop and advance talent. This can mean pathways programs, career advising, interweaving degrees with a credential or a license or boot camp specialization, education-as-a-benefit programs—all to boost employment marketability.

The growth of online access adds a significant and dynamic dimension to the delivery and reach of these programs. I think the key is that we’re listening, learning and adjusting.

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