Andy Rosen, the Chairman and CEO of Kaplan, has every reason to peacock around the education landscape. Rosen has been in charge of Kaplan for over 30 years, serving more than a million learners each year, with operations in approximately 30 countries and partnerships with nearly 2,000 universities, colleges, schools, and school districts and more than 4,000 employers worldwide.
Anybody who knows Rosen knows that strutting his and Kaplan’s immovable success couldn’t be further from the truth. Rosen and Kaplan continue on a measured path keeping the CEO’s blood pressure steady and his team’s response to an ever-changing market constantly consistent.
This reporter spent time with Rosen at the ‘belle of the ball’ for education conferences, ASU-GSV, this spring and followed up with an extended interview to better understand a giant of a company led by a pillar of the education leadership community.
The following conversation covers several subjects, including Rosen’s uncanny knack for predicting the future.
Rod Berger: When looking at all the various elements you’re involved in, from partnerships to students, what changes in education most resonate with you today? Education appears to be at an interesting inflection point with online models and cultural shifts. What do you look at when you think about Kaplan’s role at the table moving forward?
Andy Rosen: I’ve been in education for a long time and there has always been a great deal of change inside education. At Kaplan, we try not to chase the next squirrel or theme but think about where the world is going in the long run.
When Stanley Kaplan founded the company Kaplan, he established the test prep industry and the notion of an educational services company that didn’t exist before. There were publishing companies, but as far as high-quality services in diversified locations around the country and the world they didn’t exist before Kaplan came along.
Stanley Kaplan was the progenitor of the whole education industry in a real sense. With online education and Higher Education models, Kaplan has been a driver by not thinking about current trends per se but more about where education is going. It’s about thinking more mobile, accessible, personalized, outcome-focused, and global. All of those things are focused on work readiness and they are clearly going to happen.
Kaplan is built around where the world is going and preparing for a broader audience. So instead of focusing just on today’s issues, we try to concentrate on the issues that are almost inevitable over a long time.
Long Term Culture
Berger: Take me inside with a guest pass into Kaplan and the spirit of a company involved in the long term or the long haul. How do we understand that internally, from a leadership perspective? How might it trickle down into what you’re offering the market?
Rosen: You don’t just think about a company as being long-term oriented. You think about your customers and students being long-term oriented and the universities and companies we serve. Education is a funny industry because it takes place over extended periods in universities and a lifetime for individuals.
We are lucky to be part of an extraordinarily long-term-oriented company, Graham Holdings, renamed from our former parent, the Washington Post company, after the paper was sold. It has never focused on quarterly earnings but rather on building long-term quality. Kaplan is also very long-term oriented culturally, and the only pressure from our corporate parent is to be long-term minded.
We have people that want to build careers in an environment that enables them to do good things for people. The ordering is clear. First, let’s do well for our students and partners and see the results. In other industries, it’s possible to reverse that but not the way we work.
Process of Rebooting
Berger: Your book is titled, Change.edu: Rebooting for the new talent economy. Tell me about the word “rebooting’ and the need to press the reset button to some degree. Can you deconstruct the rebooting component and expand on the new talent economy moving into the next 10 years?
Rosen: It’s been clear for a long time that what our education system sees as its goals doesn’t always align with what our economy needs for its future. Imagine a pipe going through education, but that pipe is not always connected to the work pipe. Kaplan sees itself as a bridge or joint that can pull those pipes together and bring the system closer.
People know Kaplan for our test preparation, but we are a comprehensive education company working with hundreds of universities and thousands of companies worldwide to help deliver their goals. A big part of our work is to help universities ensure their students are work-ready when they leave and assure companies that their employees can succeed in their jobs.
Navigating Higher Education Changes
Berger: If there is any subset of an industry that has been in constant flux, it’s higher education. What’s it like for your company looking to remain consistent in an environment undergoing massive shifts and changes? What’s it like supporting a partner such as a university?
Rosen: Universities are rightly starting to feel stressed about where their future is going. There are perception issues of whether universities are delivering value. Polling shows concerns about what is happening at universities. But beyond that, there’s a demographic cliff coming where fewer people are emerging from our middle and high schools. Additionally, there are consolidation institutions, which will attract more and more students.
Many universities are one or two presidents away from real problems concerning survival. The university community sees us as a partner in helping to navigate these choppy waters.
Typically, a university president has a list of 10 priorities to help move the needle. Internationalizing a campus might be one. We can bring students from overseas or integrate international populations into the campus. We can make them a successful institution for international students and ensure work-ready experiences.
Career Core, a Kaplan solution, supplements a career office of a university. We often sit atop career services in many universities to provide more detailed programs or Kaplan Credegree, adding an industry-recognized credential to a liberal arts degree. For instance, an English degree plus a cybersecurity certificate can be very attractive, whereas one of them alone may not be.
We obviously help universities deliver online programs quickly. Back in the 90s, we were grinding it out, building online programming for higher education institutions. We continued to produce technologies, processes and pedagogies even against withering criticism from essentially all of academia. Eventually, we demonstrated enough market demand that more traditional universities started to get into online education. As a result, there was some expertise there when the pandemic hit. There was a playbook.
Berger: If you chose to update your book (published 2011) and wanted to add a chapter, what would be the next truth-telling entry from Andy Rosen?
Rosen: The predictions I made in the last chapter have held up pretty well. But one thing that is still not as embraced as it should be is that higher education is increasingly going to be global. We assume that American students are going to attend American institutions. But when you have a digital education, it doesn’t matter where it comes from, as long as it’s high quality. High-intensity focused universities and companies around the world will become competitors.
On the flip side, we should consider taking advantage of America as the gold standard for global education and become an importer of students. There’s a huge opportunity. The future of education will be borderless, maybe not entirely in five years, but you’ll start to see the movement in one or two decades.
Ecosystem of Opportunity
Berger: Could you talk about the connection between the startup world and a big company? There are plenty of opportunities in the form of partnerships that allow the two worlds to come together. Could you discuss that relationship?
Rosen: I view Kaplan as less purely a company than an ecosystem. It’s an ecosystem that includes our programs and programs with partners, many of which are startups that do things very well. We admire their energy and spirit, emulating that entrepreneurial spirit within our own company. There are so many needs and crevices of opportunities around the world for startups to make an impact.
Kaplan is very much a global company. One of our key strengths is that we have full-on teams in every major country. We are trying to build the company for the needs that we think education will have over the next couple of decades.
As the world continues to get smaller and increasingly more connected, Andy Rosen and Kaplan work to farm an ecosystem built on tradition. At the core of the effort is a steadfast belief that having all of the answers means you have nothing at all.
It takes an openness to new people, partners, and ideas to further the lifespan of an ecosystem that will ultimately provide greater opportunities for young people as they build their own worlds.
Kaplan continues to extend a trusting ‘hand’ to advance education in the U.S. and abroad.
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.