One of the nation’s great public science, technology, and engineering universities, Purdue University, recently announced it was acquiring Kaplan Higher Education, a 15-campus for-profit postsecondary-education chain. While the move has drawn a fair amount of early criticism, this may be a historically important initiative, one that should be applauded by both higher-education institutions and those they serve.
First, the Purdue-Kaplan deal promises to raise the quality of American postsecondary education in a dramatic and very visible fashion. Kaplan was one of the for-profit chains cited in the U.S Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions’ scathing 2012 report on the for-profit higher-education industry, particularly publicly traded chains. These institutions were criticized for low admission standards and graduation rates; high tuitions and student-loan default rates; predatory recruitment practices; and gaming the federal financial-aid regulations, among other abuses. The U.S. Senate report called for greater oversight of the industry. To date, large segments of the industry and some accreditors have resisted the recommendations of that report.
The Kaplan acquisition — in which Purdue controls academics and Kaplan retains backroom management — has the promise of setting higher standards for for-profits than government or accreditors have succeeded at doing. Purdue, which plans to turn the for-profit institution into a public university, can now offer a visible "no excuses" demonstration of how academic standards can be raised at institutions like Kaplan.
Purdue also has an opportunity to learn from Kaplan. Partially but certainly not wholly as the result of predatory recruiting, for-profits have been far more successful than traditional higher education at attracting and enrolling students who are underrepresented economically, socially, ethnically, racially, and geographically. There are transferable lessons here, and increasing diversity would enrich Purdue and possibly serve as a model for the nation’s other research universities.
Second, in the current climate of rising higher-education costs, diminishing real-dollar government funding, and demographically driven enrollment shortfalls in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Midwest states, institutional mergers are an essential survival tactic for many colleges. Purdue’s acquisition of Kaplan makes it clear that merger is not the lot of only troubled colleges. It shows that the joining of institutions can be a vehicle for strengthening even the nation’s prestigious and selective colleges.
Finally, Purdue’s acquisition of Kaplan points to the future of American higher education. Our current system of colleges and universities was created for an industrial society. However, this nation is making a transition from a national, analog, industrial economy to a global, digital, information economy. Only once before has the country experienced as profound a transformation, when America changed from a local, agrarian economy to a national, industrial society. The agrarian colleges were remade during that era to create the modern system of higher education, including a panoply of new and different types of institutions — universities like Johns Hopkins and Cornell, technical schools like MIT, and junior college (which would come to be called community colleges).
However, one set of institutions was created to straddle both worlds — land-grant colleges. These institutions were designed to embrace both higher education’s heritage and a new world being born. The federal government gave public land to each state to be sold to create colleges that would offer both an agrarian classical curriculum and an industrial-era mechanical-arts program. Purdue University was one of those institutions.
With the acquisition of Kaplan, Purdue is straddling the industrial and digital worlds and thereby updating the mission of the land-grant college as a transitional university that leads higher education into the future. Purdue stands as one of the nation’s great industrial-era universities. In recent years, it has made notable forays into the digital era in its research and programs. However, the Kaplan deal marks a dramatic change in scale. It represents a merger of both eras, to which Kaplan brings more than 30,000 students and mass online programs to the storied Indiana university.
The Purdue-Kaplan deal may be historically important in embracing digital higher education, once again joining the present and the future and creating an institution that will guide higher education into tomorrow.
Purdue’s vision in taking this bold step should be applauded.
Arthur Levine is the president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and president emeritus of Teachers College, Columbia University.