Kaplan U.'s Catchy Ad Provokes a Question: Do Colleges Serve Today's Students?

Photograph courtesy Kaplan Inc.

A scene from a Kaplan U. commercial
June 29, 2009

The best piece of college marketing this year is a television ad that could easily be taken as a fingers-flapping, thumb at the nose to centuries of higher-education tradition.

It's the Kaplan University spot that starts off showing a pensive-looking "professor" in the well of a wood-paneled lecture hall intoning to his students: "The system has failed you. I have failed you."

The ad then cuts to scenes of students of various ages, races, and circumstances plugging in to watch the rest of that apology as it comes streaming out from laptops on a student's kitchen table, a living-room sofa, and a city rooftop. One student is shown attentively watching on a tiny screen (an iPhone?) while seated on a New York City subway platform.

The aim, says Linda Mignone, vice president for brand and strategic marketing at Kaplan Higher Education, was to "redefine higher education" in the public's eye.

On matters of business practices, for-profit colleges often set a cutting-edge standard. This commercial does that and a whole lot more. It presents a vision of higher education as tech savvy, culturally diverse, flexible, student-centered, and to this baby boomer at least, even a bit hip.

Kaplan's provost, David L. Clinefelter says the for-profit university that now enrolls 58,000 mostly online students "was not trying to cast aspersions" on other institutions but to show how Kaplan was "different in a positive way."

Still, colleges criticized in the commercial as "steeped in tradition and old ideas" for their lack of adaptability might rightly take issue with the ad's implication that they don't use technology or meet the needs of any student over the age of 22.

In fact, many institutions have improved their focus on serving older students —in some cases out of the colleges' own economic necessity or as part of a statewide effort. Oklahoma's two-year-old Reach Higher program, for example, caters to adults with a one-stop admissions process, personalized counseling, and compressed course terms that are easier for working adults to take on. But the special program, while growing, is still small; its fewer than 400 students represent just a tiny fraction of the overall enrollment of 230,000 in Oklahoma's colleges and universities. Each of the eight participating institutions has $20,000 a year to market the program.

And of course many institutions, but not all, are far more advanced than Kaplan in their use of the Web and social-media tools in their teaching. One demonstration of that is the video "A Vision of Students Today," from a 2008 Professor of the Year, Michael Wesch of Kansas State University. A collaborative project of his digital-ethnography class, the video shows students in a lecture hall holding signs that highlight the disconnect between their staid college education and their facility with online information and tools. "I will read eight books this year," reads one student's sign, but "2,300 Web pages & 1,281 Facebook profiles."

The video has drawn more than three million hits since going up on YouTube less than two years ago, a sign that there is plenty of sympathy for the critique it lays out. (Mr. Wesch says he doesn't consider the Kaplan ad a rip-off of his video, but he does worry that it could reinforce the faulty premise that technology-enhanced teaching is merely about using the Internet to "deliver content.")

Traditionalists and others also might take issue with the messenger. Kaplan University, after all, is one among several for-profit colleges whose recruiting tactics are facing scrutiny in court cases and at the U.S. Department of Education, where officials are now weighing new regulations. The same issue could apply to the University of Phoenix, which is spending tens of millions on its own well-regarded, adult-focused ad campaign, using "I am a Phoenix" as its theme.

But Kaplan's fundamental message is spot on. As the ad says, "It is time for a different kind of university" (emphasis mine).

Cultural and demographic changes, and the interests of remaining globally competitive, demand it.

For one, it's not unreasonable that the current and coming college students who have been Growing Up Digital, as Donald Tapscott describes them in his 1998 book of the same name, should expect at least as much technological creativity from their institution of higher education as they now find in the PlayStation in their family room. How many institutions can deliver on that?

And the only way the United States can ever meet President Obama's goal of having the world's highest proportion of college graduates by 2020 is by getting more adults into college. That's true even taking into account the effects of immigration and the best-case predictions for improved high-school graduation rates and higher rates of collegegoing and college completion by 18-to-24-year-olds.

"Just relying on the traditional college pipeline is going to leave us short in closing that gap," says Patrick Kelly, director of the national information center at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, a nonprofit consultancy in Colorado that has run the projections with all of those optimistic scenarios. (The United States now trails nine other countries, led by Canada, Japan, and South Korea, in college attainment among those ages 25 to 34.)

Only about 46 percent of 25-to- 49-year-olds have an associate degree or higher, and as the center's analysis shows, the trend is going in the wrong direction. The proportion of those adults who lack a bachelor's degree and who were enrolled in college in 2007 was just 5.7 percent; it was 7.2 percent in 1991.

So for all efforts colleges have been taking to better serve adults, there is clearly room for improvement.

Kaplan's costs for the commercial and others tied to a broader national marketing campaign by the advertising-agency powerhouse Ogilvy & Mather approached $21-million for the first quarter of 2009. The company, which wound down the airing of the ads in April, is now evaluating whether they were effective from a business point of view.

The campaign had a societal goal, too. "We wanted to create a provocative conversation about the cause," says Ms. Mignone.

Whether other institutions found Kaplan's claims refreshing or insulting, clearly the best response is to take up the implied challenge and prove Kaplan wrong. In 2009, there should be nothing "different" or unusual about a college where digital natives and working adults are made to feel right at home.

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