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Peter Smith Puts Learners First

In this interview with Business Officer, Kaplan Higher Education's Peter Smith discusses his concerns about student access and higher education capacity, and the role that for-profit institutions can and must play in meeting the educational needs of more Americans.

By John Walda

*Throughout his higher education career, Peter Smith has been less concerned about specific learning models and more focused on learning outcomes. As senior vice president of academic strategies and development for Kaplan Higher Education, his current role within the proprietary sector follows a rich professional history at not-for-profit colleges and universities, within state and national politics, and in international development. In this interview with Business Officer, Smith discusses his concerns about student access and higher education capacity, and the role that for-profit institutions can and must play in meeting the educational needs of more Americans.

You've served in various capacities within higher education, including as founding president at the Community College of Vermont and at California State University at Monterey Bay. You were Vermont's lieutenant governor and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. And before assuming your current position with Kaplan, you served as assistant director of UNESCO. What is the common thread linking these diverse roles?

Leaving my tenure in elective politics aside, I think the connective tissue throughout my education career has been about putting the learner at the center and thinking foremost about those who aren't benefiting from the system the way it is organized and financed. This really began during my senior year in college, when I developed and ran a tutoring program for elementary school kids in New Jersey. I was struck by the differences in opportunities and expectations between the mainstream and what we today would call marginalized or multirisk populations. So that propelled me to go into education.

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Then very early on—I was 24 years old at the time—I had an unlikely opportunity to help found the Community College of Vermont. We had proposed a noncampus, community-based initiative with no permanent faculty that would center on learning outcomes, since that was how we could convince learners and leaders alike that what we were doing would have a positive impact.

Now, the way we looked at learning outcomes 40 years ago and how we look at them today is dramatically different, but all this pushed me to begin questioning how well our education system addresses issues of student engagement and how to appropriately validate and measure learning experiences outside our formal education settings.

Your earlier book, The Quiet Crisis [Anker, 2004], carries the subtitle of "How Higher Education Is Failing America." Can you summarize the ways in which you believe higher education has failed?

To clarify, I think our higher education system has failed predominantly at the margins. It would be irresponsible to diminish the impact that 4,000 accredited institutions have on the intellectual, social, and economic health of their communities. They represent investments, tradition, and in many cases, startling innovation. It would also be folly to imagine any future within which they don't play a major role. And yet, it's critical to differentiate between asking institutions to innovate and improve their quality, and asking them to do something they may not be organized to do.

Can you elaborate on that?

I realized in the early part of the past decade that we weren't making the kind of progress we needed to in terms of educating a larger percentage of people in this country. Despite my book's provocative title, an underlying premise was that our educational system, while flawed, could be reformed to meet this capacity challenge. A key difference between that book and my latest one [Harnessing America's Wasted Talent: A New Ecology in Learning, Jossey-Bass, 2010] is that I no longer believe that is the case.

And why not?

After I returned from UNESCO, having seen firsthand the kinds of models that other nations are adopting, and getting to understand the open education resource movement and the emergence of cloud computing and all these fabulous applications, I realized that the system we have, as it is currently structured and financed, really cannot effectively meet our nation's need to boost degree attainment. And so, the premise of my second book is that we have a great system that we need to improve so that we can serve more learners, but we can't ask it to take sole responsibility for educating an additional 10 million people within this decade.

Since you mention financing structures, given widespread concern within higher education about the reliability of traditional funding sources, how do you think the not-for-profit sector should reform current business models to remain viable?

First, I think more nonprofit institutions will have to consider what runs counter to their normal practices. For example, more public colleges and universities may need to privatize some of their graduate schools so they can manage these schools outside of an expectation for state funding. You see this happening already with some business schools in particular.

I think we'll also see continued growth of nontraditional campuses. Wonderful examples already exist, including Rio Salado College, University of Maryland University College, SUNY Empire State College, Thomas Edison State College, and Western Governors University. These are the byproduct of educators, policy makers, and board members coming together to form new kinds of institutions to meet the needs of different types of learners, and doing so at a significantly lower price point than a private nonprofit institution might offer.

I think we're going to see more public and private partnerships, including alliances between the nonprofit and for-profit sectors.

Likewise, I believe we'll see an uptick in corporately funded alliances and partnerships to deliver college-level coursework and degrees in different settings, and this can provide new revenue opportunities for institutions.

Finally, I think we're going to witness a renewed—but a far more serious—focus on facilitating the accumulation of academic credit for transfer and returning students. As we improve our understanding of how to package prior learning and life experience to give students advanced standing, this will allow many more students to finish a degree more quickly, saving them time and money and providing a huge boost to working adults who believe they deserve credit for what they already know.

Understandably, this has not been popular with many institutions because it means they have less control over a student's trajectory, and they also generate less tuition revenue from that student, even though overall they could potentially generate more revenue by serving more students. As we develop protocols that institutions can adopt or adapt, I do think this will become more the norm.

As you know, many within the not-for-profit sector view the for-profit sector as competition. Others see it as supplementary to the traditional system, perhaps serving a different student population. And still others think the relationship between the two sectors should be more collaborative. I'm curious about how you would characterize the proprietary sector vis-a-vis the not-for-profit sector, and how you think for-profit institutions are changing higher education in this country.

First, I think your analysis is spot-on, but even more generally, I would say there is an emerging education space that is not alternative to what's going on, but complementary. I'm talking about the new models of online and blended delivery and participation patterns available right now. We're in the process of redefining the entire higher education value proposition, made possible because of this extraordinary Web-based capacity that was unfathomable even 15 years ago. So I think it's only natural that we're going to see more public and private partnerships, including alliances between the nonprofit and for-profit sectors.

The fact of the matter is that the public funding spigot has been diminished and will be for years to come. If it begins to flow again, it will be at a far-reduced rate. If public institutions continue to deal only with themselves, far fewer learners will have access, and even fewer will ultimately graduate. I am by no means arguing that traditional institutions should automatically embrace and partner with proprietary institutions, but neither should they dismiss what the for-profits can offer. One reason I joined Kaplan was to see the potential of the proprietary sector, including its role in expanding capacity.

And your impression so far?

The cultural characteristic I've found among those on the academic side at Kaplan—and I think this is consistent based on my conversations with others from Capella University, the University of Phoenix, and so forth—is that they really understand in the clearest way that doing a good job with every learner is also good business. And so they are preoccupied with what works, how well it works, and how to do more of what works and less of what doesn't. The absence of politics around administrative traditions, faculty senate votes, and departmental requirements means we can get to work testing alternatives. It's not that our efforts are perfect, but that we are learning.

No one should forget that this sector is less than 15 years old and has been on a growth curve that is astonishing. In another five years, I think we will see remarkable improvements not only to some of our business practices, but also to our ability to define and achieve high quality and consistent learning results with students who historically have not done well or were unlikely even to participate in college. Within that same time frame, I think more will come to understand the value of the proprietary sector for its ability to positively contribute to the broader higher education agenda—which is what we all want to do.

JOHN WALDA is president and CEO of NACUBO.