It’s no secret that the larger proprietary colleges and universities have enjoyed tremendous growth in online education over the last decade. By providing the under-served adult student population with convenient learning options, their enrolment growth has far outpaced that of traditional, non-profit colleges and universities.

Many people predicted that traditional schools would eventually adopt some of the strategies of these providers – and they did, of course, particularly with respect to marketing. Less predictable was that these “upstarts” would attempt to stake out positions of leadership in key areas of higher education normally reserved for traditional, non-profits. Consider Kaplan University.

1. Kaplan is a member of the Transparency by Design initiative that “lead universities and colleges toward greater accountability and transparency.” Although I can’t vouch for the integrity of this initiative, I think it has great symbolic value at a time when higher education is being asked to demonstrate greater transparency and accountability.

2. Kaplan’s promotional campaign and web site has the look and feel of an NGO human rights campaign. The advertisements challenge traditional higher education (and, by extension, traditional higher education providers).

screenshot_02From the Kaplan web site:

“The best way to end wasted talent is to seek out new ways to develop it. We’re working to help bring awareness to the talent crisis in America. To initiate a change in the way that education works. And to create opportunities for everyone with talent — regardless of age, geography, or circumstances. By adding your voice to the conversation we can begin to solve the problem.

That’s why we’re creating the End Wasted Talent Fund. Over the next few months, we’ll be announcing opportunities for people who have a desire to make more of their future and their talent.

We invite you to get involved. Share your thoughts about this issue and help students of all ages get the most out of their talent. Together, we can create new educational opportunities and change the future for the better.

Together, we can end wasted talent.”

Yes, it’s easy to see this as merely a clever marketing tactic. Kaplan is not the first to link social issues to products and services. The Body Shop, for example, successfully merged the social and political aspirations of educated, middle-class women with beauty products; if the Body Shop can do it for foot scrubs and loofahs, surely Kaplan can do it for education.

3. A couple of weeks ago Kaplan announced their participation in the OCW – the open source content initiative. Kaplan content will sit aside content from traditional institutions like MIT. And like MIT, Kaplan’s involvement is largely symbolic (few people will learn from PowerPoint files). But in Kaplan’s case, involvement in open sources takes on special significance. Proprietary schools are often criticized for being “all about money”. But here they are acting against type – giving away their educational resources for free.


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