Blog: Higher Ed Beat

College Presidents Discuss What the Purdue-Kaplan Deal Means for Higher Ed

There’s no question that higher ed is undergoing a sea change. Soaring student costs, unpredictable swings in state funding and an increasing demands from employers for highly skilled graduates are just a few reasons university leaders are scrambling for formulas that work.

Purdue University President Mitch Daniels says he’s had luck with a string of education innovations in recent years. A new income-sharing agreement program, which lets students finance their education with a percentage of future earnings rather than student loans, has lowered student and family costs. A deal with Amazon has lowered textbook costs. Now Daniels is looking to merge two different business models for higher education in a still developing proposal for the public research institution Purdue to buy the for-profit online Kaplan University.

“I don’t tout them. I don’t recommend them to anyone else,” Daniels said earlier this month during a panel discussion on innovation in higher education at the Education Writers Association’s National Seminar in Washington, D.C.  

“We’re not trying to suggest anything we’ve done should be generalized. I’m just trying to do right by one institution,” said Daniels, who took the helm at Purdue in 2013, after two terms as Indiana governor.

Daniels and fellow panel member Scott Pulsipher, president of Western Governors University, emphasized that they are focused on being nimble and responsive to market demands. WGU is an online university that currently enrolls almost 80,000 students.

At WGU, they have adopted a competency-based learning model and charge a flat fee of about $3,000 for any six-month period, with students allowed to begin their term on the first day of any month. Those parameters enable WGU to work with any students – particularly working adults who have some college but no degree.

WGU has also broken up the traditional faculty structure, Pulsipher said, with professors assigned to silos of work – some creating classroom plans, some teaching, others evaluating student work, for example – to make it more nimble and efficient.

Daniels was unapologetic about upending long-standing university traditions, chafing particularly at the slow pace of change in higher education.

“For places which are seabeds of innovation in so many ways, (universities) don’t innovate institutionally very often,” he said. Universities are good at sparking innovation in students, he said, but “in terms of how they run their own affairs, too often they are very, very slow to change.”

Daniels said there are still plenty of unknowns on the Kaplan deal, including what the new hybrid university will be called and how much students will pay.

Both men were also sharply focused on the job market and making sure education opportunities were focused on successful job placement for graduates.

WGU works closely with employers and adjusts its coursework to ensure graduates have the latest skills in demand, Pulsipher said.

“There’s no doubt education remains the single biggest catalyst for individuals to change their lives,” Pulsipher said. “But we have to be careful in over-generalizing that education is the path to opportunity …. You have to put the focus on the quality of the credential itself.”

Shout out to EWA member Goldie Blumenstyk of The Chronicle of Higher Education for a comprehensive nuts-and-bolts look at the Kaplan deal.