Sending the education system back to school
By Steven Martinovich
Ever since A Nation at Risk: The Report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education dropped in 1983, politicians and experts have periodically called for change to the American education system – or to be more specific – the nation's elementary and secondary school systems. Higher education has been relatively ignored despite the absolutely vital role it plays in today's knowledge economy. The end result has been that costs for college and university have exploded in recent years and yet relatively the same number of Americans are graduating from the traditional state and private universities. And to make matters worse, the U.S. ranks 10th among industrial countries for percentage of adults with college degrees, a number that has been falling while costs have risen.
Andrew Rosen, CEO of test preparation material giant Kaplan, Inc., argues with Change.edu: Rebooting for the New Talent Economy that there is player on the American education scene that is expanding access to post-secondary education while keeping costs low. Institutions like Rosen's Kaplan University, DeVry Institute of Technology and the University of Phoenix, among many others, he writes, are educating Americans that the mainstream post-secondary system has long ignored as "not college material." While the establishment spends billions on turning their campuses into resorts in an effort to compete for the same students, Rosen says private, for-profits are meeting the needs of millions of Americans who want to expand their skill sets and escape low-end employment.
Rosen argues that the U.S. is facing an education gap, that in order to maintain its place in the world economy, the country must see tens of millions of additional Americans enter the post-secondary education system. The traditional players – with their well-manicured lawns, resort style residences and old-school ways of delivering knowledge – are unable to meet demand. Rather than spend money on enhancing accessibility, he charges, they spend billions to engage in what he calls "Harvard envy" – a race to constantly improve perceived reputation. Given that everyone is competing in the same race, the end result is that they fight for the same students. Eventually taxpayer dollars are used not to educate, but build on-campus steakhouses, 20-person hot tubs, and student residences that are plusher than the houses of some of the parents signing the tuition cheques.
The answer to expanded access, he writes, isn't to lavish more money on the old stalwarts to compete on the "Automatics" – those who were always going to go to college – but to encourage the growth of private, for-profits. These institutions, he says, are everything that the "old school" is not – flexible, innovative, low cost, and delivering specialized, practical knowledge to assist at-risk, older or part-time students in achieving their goals. Change.edu argues that these for-profits rely on a student's future success and to that end work hard to ensure their learning what they need to, actively measure student performance and spend money as efficiently as possible. If these institutions fail to teach their students, the future of the enterprise is eventually at risk.
Of course, schools like Kaplan and DeVery have long been the butt of jokes for the perceived quality of their education and the perception that a college without a traditional campus is more like a factory then a school. Rosen brushes that criticism aside by arguing that one-size education may serve many, but cannot serve all. Some students aren't interested in the full college experience that established colleges and universities offer. Some are more interested in fitting education around their schedules, not cheering the school football team at a massive, taxpayer supported stadium on a Saturday afternoon. And not everyone is eager to spend a great deal of time learning about the theory behind a body of knowledge when it is only the practice that will advance their careers.
To his credit, Rosen generally avoids making Change.edu into a vehicle for promoting his company's ventures even though he peppers mentions of them and their efforts throughout his book. Nor does it read as the efforts of a man defensive of what he is doing – Rosen is utterly unapologetic for carrying the banner of private-for profit education. Despite the fact that Rosen is fairly balanced in presenting his views on post-secondary education – the mainstream institutions receive praise as well as criticism – the book still often reads like an extended cheerleading exercise for his point of view. That's not necessarily a weakness, nor unexpected – especially considering Rosen makes his views clear at the outset of Change.edu – but someone expecting a truly unvarnished look at the private, for-profit education industry isn't going to find it here.
That isn't meant as criticism. Considering the lobbying industry supported by mainstream institutions, the paternalistic feelings by politicians and the generally positive reputation they enjoy, competitors to the established order need as many champions as they can get. Change.edu shows that Rosen is in command of his facts, evangelistic in his fervour and not intimidated to share his point of view. If the private, for-profit education industry doesn't have a lobbying association of their own, they could do far worse than enlist Rosen to organize one and lead its efforts. And considering how many of the established players are beginning to ape the efforts of an industry they also disparage, it would appear that the innovation that Rosen speaks of is already beginning to shake things up.
Steven Martinovich is the founder and editor of Enter Stage Right.
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