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What Higher Education Can Learn from the For-Profit Model

Since most for-profit institutions were built from the ground-up, they did not have to overcome cultural and policy barriers than create challenges for adult students in many other long-established higher education institutions.

The following interview is with Peter Smith, the Senior Vice President for Academic Strategies and Development at the Kaplan Higher Education Corporation, author of three books focused on higher education—including Harnessing America’s Wasted Talent: A New Ecology of Learning—and former State Representative and Lieutenant Governor of Vermont. In this interview, Smith discusses the strengths of for-profit institutions in serving the adult student market, and explains why he feels traditional educational institutions are less able than new institutions to serve this diverse group of learners.

1. What qualities do for-profit institutions have that best suit them to serve adult learners?

I think the fundamental difference, certainly when I came to Kaplan Higher Education Group five and a half years ago, was that the proprietary sector in general was not burdened by the government’s traditions of the traditional academy or traditional post-secondary education when it came to curriculum, assessment of learning, teaching, the development and design of curriculum or use of technology.

There are ways to include diverse voices, to include diverse approaches and at the same time work towards objectives that are clear and concise. I think the proprietary sector in general had the advantage of being able to be more nimble, more decisive about best practices, identifying what worked better with high-risk students, multiple-risk-factor students, and doing more of that. And then as we moved into the big data era, the beginning of big data as an important part of higher education, I think that in general the proprietary sector has been able to really move more aggressively with that as a way of really understanding what’s working well for multiple-risk-factor learners and why, and doing more of that—and what isn’t working well, and doing less of that.

At the bottom of it all, we are able to be more consistent, work on continuous improvement and quality assurance around learning outcomes and good teaching practices. Certainly, five years ago, in a way that I had not seen in most of the more traditional non-profit, public and private educational environment.

2. Conversely, looking at the models of not-for-profit and public institutions, why are they less strong in serving adults than the for-profits?

I’m not sure that as a blanket statement, I would say that they are less effective. I think, in general, the for-profits have a much higher percentage of older learners who are enrolled in their certificate and degree programs. …

I think, at bottom—and this is a problem that I’ve worked on when I was in the community college environment, when I was in the private, non-profit environment, when I was president of a public state university—the fact of the matter is, when you set up on a campus with faculty in a traditional mode, your policies, your practices, your schedule and the whole culture of the place, academically, that you have, is oriented towards people who have the time to come there, stay there, do it during the day.

I know there’s lots of weekend programs and evening programs, but the fact of the matter is they do not predominate. To put it in a simplistic way, the traditional academy—whether it’s the core of a community college… or state universities or private colleges and universities—they were organized to treat a younger student who had the time and the inclination to come and be there and use the library and sit in a seat in front of gifted teachers. That is not the way adults, in general, want to experience or can experience post-secondary education. As much as it is the proprietary sector, I think it is also newer colleges and universities that are organized for adults—I think of Western Governors, or American Public University System, or the University of Maryland University College, or Kaplan University—they had the opportunity to design their virtual or campus or blended environments specifically for older learners, as opposed to trying to transform a campus and a culture and an approach to curriculum that was organized for younger learners into something else. I think it’s easier, having started two institutions—as hard work as that is—it’s a better way, in many cases, it is easier work, to build anew than it is to transform an existing set of policies, practices and cultures. …

The value here is to be organized to achieve certain educational objectives. If you are focusing on older learners who are working, who have children, who have other events in their lives, then you are going to design with a different criteria in mind to create academic success from the effort that those older learners make. It’s starting anew, newer institutions with different vision and different learning objectives for different learning communities versus older institutions that have set economics, set culture, set policy and that transformation is a very difficult thing to pull off.

3. What elements of the for-profit model should other institutions look at adopting in order to better serve adults?

I recently finished a book, it’s called Harnessing America’s Wasted Talent: A New Ecology of Learning. In it, I stipulated in the third section that I felt “colleges for the 21st century”… was not going to be distinct because of its form. It’s going to be distinctive because of its characteristics. There would not be any one dominant institutional form, rather there would be many bundles of the educational value proposition organized in different ways to serve different regions or different populations or different learning objectives.

I think the key here, from an organizational perspective, is that proprietary or non-proprietary, you need the flexibility to organize the institutional, curricular, assessment and learning support practices in a way that works successfully for your learners, the learners you are focusing on.

I think personalization is going to be important, I think customization is going to be important, I think transparency of credit transfer is going to be important. I think learning outcomes, focusing on what people know as a result of their study, and what they are able to do, as opposed to what courses they took [will be important]. I think with the MOOC and open-resource movement we see great curriculum content is going to become a commodity. I think for any institution to stake its uniqueness on the curriculum it creates, when there’s phenomenal curriculum available at little or no cost to anybody who wants to take it, [is ill-informed]. I think you’re going to see a shifting from the form of the institution, the form that it takes being the most important thing, to the bundle of services that the institution offers and how well they offer it. I think it’s going to become far more flexible on the one hand, and far more personalized and customized as well. At the end of the day, you’re going to know what the graduate knows and is able to do, as well as how they learned it. I think knowing what they know is more important than where they actually gained the knowledge and experience.

Again, I think the proprietary sector—and you see this now with new forms and organizational services popping up every day out of the venture capital world—I think is going to open a very, very strong window or vent to innovation which will make it simpler for existing institutions to innovate. My suspicion is those innovations will be extra-mural. They will not be changing the existing undergraduate program, they will be—like they did over the years in Maryland creating a separate university, University of Maryland University College—focuses on business, focuses on the marketplace, focuses on online learning, much like the British Open University did as well. I think you’re going to see multiple forms and I think the key is they will be independent, and not part of a larger institution.

4. Is there anything you would like to add about the strengths of the for-profit sector in terms of serving adult learners?

The lessons that we are learning in the for-profit sector, and I think when you think about the remarks Secretary Duncan made… we are learning that it is results that matter, that saying the right words as they express your values are important, but being successful with learners is what it’s all about. I think that is a message that is going to wash, if you will, across all of post-secondary education in all of its forms. …

The forms may all be different, but what I think we have brought is the importance of accountability to the learners, that we will deliver and they are investing their time, their dreams and their money and whoever we are—proprietary, non-profit, private, public—we owe them the delivery on their dreams. They give us their dreams and their money and their time and their talent, and we have to work with them to deliver real learning. That is, I think, what has broke open in the last five to six years.

It started with the proprietary sector… it will extend to everybody. I think we are, in a very interesting way, ahead of the game now because we have had to respond to legitimate concerns and criticism when those concerns and criticisms were raised.

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