Adult Learner Demand

The Boilermakers’ Big Play: Purdue’s Acquisition of Kaplan University

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We’re intrigued to learn of the acquisition of Kaplan University by Purdue University. Managed by Purdue, this entirely new institution will serve “non-traditional adult learners,” according to yesterday’s SEC filing. In a single day, Purdue has become one of the largest public institutions serving adult online students. Coming on the heels of last month’s acquisition of Education Management Corporation (EDMC) by Los Angeles religious organization, the Dream Center Foundation, Purdue’s move generates some compelling questions. Is this further evidence that the boundaries are blurring between for-profit education providers and non-profit universities?  Does this signal a further weakening of the for-profit online sector? What challenges will Purdue, a renowned R1 university, face in making this radical pivot toward serving working adults? What will this mean for other large online education providers, such as Penn State World Campus and Arizona State University Online? While we expect to learn more in the coming days, here is a snapshot of how we’re making sense of this acquisition:
  • Despite its focus on traditional students, Purdue is a logical candidate to take over Kaplan. Purdue’s engineering and science strength helped it become an early innovator in learning analytics technologies, such as its Course Signals initiative. These have changed the conversation about how data can be used to support adult learners, among others. It also appears to be benefiting from the leadership of President Mitch Daniels, who has been unafraid to dabble in experiments with Western Governors University and competency-based education.
  • While Kaplan University has escaped many of the regulatory challenges facing other large for-profit online schools, lower enrollment rates have impacted its operations. At the same time, Kaplan’s own longstanding commitment to learning engineering, as an extension of conventional instructional design practices, has been notable. This is Kaplan’s opportunity to positively impact Purdue’s new school.
  • Kaplan also brings considerable expertise in the management of an online university. As part of a 30-year, contractual commitment to the new institution, Kaplan will help with technology support, financial aid administration, help-desk services, and marketing. Perhaps we’ve just witnessed the birth of a new flavor of online program management (OPM) provider. Kaplan now is reading from a new playbook and has exchanged its autonomy for more stability.
  • What does this mean for Kaplan’s existing adult learner population, numbering about 32,000 students? An affiliation with Purdue University will be a clear bonus as they complete degrees and enter the job market. We expect, too, that they will benefit from enhanced online learning experiences as a result of the acquisition.
  • Purdue’s play may also represent a reaffirmation of the mission and role of a public land-grant institution in broadening access to an exemplary and affordable higher education. We suspect Justin Morrill, the 1862 Land-Grant College Act advocate, is smiling on this news from somewhere.

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