Talking About Higher Ed’s Biggest Issues: An Interview with Brandon Busteed

This article is excerpted from a recent IngenioUs podcast episode with Kaplan University Partners President, Brandon Busteed.  Click here to listen to the full-length episode.

In 2018 you were named to your current position as president of Kaplan University Partners. Can you tell us about the work you’re doing at Kaplan and what Kaplan’s trying to achieve through this new division that you’re heading up? 

BB:  In simple terms, Kaplan is a global and highly diversified education company. People know it for test prep because that’s the historical brand, and most folks in higher ed are aware of the transaction between the academic university Kaplan, what was known as Kaplan University which was acquired by Purdue and is now Purdue Global. So people have awareness of those things, but we have a global footprint, we recruit more international students into Australian and UK and US universities than any other organization. We have a massive global English language training division, and we do a lot of work in a professional education with a couple hundred high value industry recognized credentials. 

When you think about that array, my role was designed to be a multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary role across all of the Kaplan divisions and businesses in the specific service of building major partnerships with US universities, all of which are anchored at the president and senior cabinet level. We’re not looking to partner with hundreds of universities, but instead, we’re trying to find really dynamic leadership teams that want to grow and adapt and innovate and bring some of the capabilities of Kaplan to the table and help those partners do that.  As a quick example, we have about 35 major university partners around the globe, where collectively across those 35, we’re bringing a little over a billion dollars in annual tuition revenue to those institutions.  These are significant partnerships. We invest deeply in them. I look at it as an opportunity to provide a transformative opportunity for colleges that are looking to diversify mission-driven revenue sources and build the work readiness of their students. Those are the two major themes of the work that we’re helping institutions with. 

One of the pieces that you’ve written that has gotten a lot of press is entitled ‘The Coming Relevance Renaissance in Higher Ed’. Can you tell our listeners what you mean by the relevance renaissance and whether COVID has changed your thinking since you wrote this? 

BB:  Very little has changed in what I wrote in that article because of COVID. In fact, if anything, it has just placed a brighter focus on the things that I highlighted in the article. In the article I was pulling on a lot of the insights relative to the research at Gallup and the big project that Gallop and Strada Education Network embarked upon with a massive survey of adults around their educational experiences.

Obviously, the pandemic is a very real threat. But the big issue is that there’s very little confidence in the work readiness of college graduates.  When you consider what the big value driver is for Americans when they think about higher education, the number one reason is to get a good or better job. Now that’s not the only reason we value it. But work readiness is the number one reason. And so when you start to think about the rising cost of higher education, whoever’s involved in the college decision starts to think about the return on their investment. 

And they are thinking about questions like ‘How much am I going to invest?’  ‘How much debt might I go into?’  ‘What type of expected return am I going to get in terms of earnings and the job that I might get as a result of this degree?’   Only about 13% of the US population strongly agrees that college graduates are well prepared for success in the workplace. Only 11% of C level executives strongly agree to a similar statement. And even among college and university trustees, it’s actually about 6% of trustees who strongly agree that colleges have a good understanding of the jobs that graduates are going to head into.  So, there appears to be a vote of no confidence in the work readiness of college graduates. 

If we don’t solve for that, that is going to be the thing that erodes our trust in higher education. And that’s my point about the coming relevance renaissance.  We have to get to a place where higher ed has a very clear value proposition around work readiness. And it’s not rocket science.  You might ask, “what are the things that improve the work readiness and the job outcomes of graduates?” It’s not necessarily what they majored in. There’s some variance there in terms of earnings, but it’s more about the experiences that they had, or didn’t have such as a long term project that took a semester or more to complete, a job or an internship where they were able to apply what they were learning in the classroom. Being able to graduate with both the degree and specific industry skills. These are not mutually exclusive. This is a both. And so that’s our opportunity. 

What kind of leadership do you think is required to pull off the kind of change and new way of thinking, new way of operating that you’re advocating for?

BB:  We know leadership is important and when it comes to the next phase for US higher education, it’s going to be one of the most critical differentiators between the institutions that succeed and those that flounder. I am often asked what kind of universities we want to work with–big ones, public ones, private ones, prestigious ones? The answer is none of the above. I’m looking to work with universities that have dynamic visionary leadership teams and that obviously starts usually with the president. Is he or she a very dynamic leader thinking about how to take the institution into the future, willing to adapt, willing to grow, wanting to grow the institution in every way?  The other facet is the degree to which these leaders have alignment with their board right above them and their senior cabinet team alongside them.  If you think about universities that have skyrocketed in their success such as Southern New Hampshire University and Arizona State, these are institutions that have had dynamic leadership. They’re now building a culture of innovation within their institutions.  This ensures the innovation will survive changes in leadership because they’ve made it an intentional part of the culture there. The institutions that I’ve been most impressed with have made innovation a very intentional and purposeful thing. I’ll give you an example–Wake Forest University which is one of our big partners at Kaplan. They have a vice president of innovation on the president’s cabinet. His job is to look for the new opportunities on the horizon. They also have an innovation committee of their board of trustees, which is really unique. Those are things that I think are highly effective steps that leaders can take to institutionalize this kind of work. 

As leaders are thinking post-pandemic about how to ready their institutions for whatever is going to come down the road, do you have any big, transformational ideas that you would encourage them to consider? 

BB:  I think there’s a number and there’s different flavors of each of these ideas. There’s a market out there for international students that involves going year round—fall, spring and summer—which would allow you to create three year bachelor’s degrees for the international market, which makes US universities much more competitive with UK institutions.  

Same kind of thinking for domestic students.  Instead of living on campus in the fall and spring, maybe you come to campus in the summer. Housing rates are probably going to be lower because you’ve got more availability. Most of the dorms are vacant, and so on. I think with the variety of delivery types such as online and hybrid, there’s a lot of ways to run with it. You think about the executive MBAs that years ago shifted to online with two weeks a year as an immersion experience–I think you’re going to start to see those kinds of things on the bachelor’s degree level. 

For traditional aged students, it’s going to be driven by the convenience of being able to do it from home, maybe being able to work while I’m doing it. And maybe an institution offers a differentiated price. So if you do the bachelor’s degree here at the university, it’s X, if you do it online with the summer option or the two weeks a year option, it’s X minus 20%, and all of a sudden you’re catering to different student types in the educational marketplace.

The other thing I’ve been talking a lot about lately is what I call an evergreen degree. We tend to think of higher ed as the pursuing of a degree with students continually enrolled for a set number of years (such as the four-year bachelor’s degree). There is this idea of lifelong learning that we all have embedded in our mission statements but haven’t really figured out how to do. That’s what the evergreen degree is all about. Let me use the example of an MBA program. I start an evergreen MBA program with the intention of getting my traditional MBA, but I plan to remain enrolled in the program throughout my career.  I might get my MBA along the way, but I continue to take a couple of courses every year that are part of a pedagogically designed program. I’m part of a cohort. If the price point is right, my employer will probably support that.

The evergreen degree speaks to what many have been calling for, the idea that institutions need to think more long-term about their relationship with their students, to shift from just a four year kind of in-and- out focus to nurturing a relationship that extends over the course of the student’s  lifetime.  What you are calling for involves building lifelong loyalty which has all kinds of benefits to the institution, not just educationally, and it seems it wouldn’t be that difficult to add credentials into the mix.

BB:  This is probably the most common project that I’m engaged with right now, helping our university partners launch ‘credegree’ programs which blend a credential and the degree.  The vision is very simple. Every student gets a bachelor’s degree, but they also leave with an industry recognized credential. Think about the marketability of a graduate who has a bachelor’s degree in English along with certification as a certified ethical hacker.  Market research shows that such a graduate is four times more likely to be hired than somebody who has just an English degree and three times more likely to be hired than somebody who just has a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity. 

What are some of the top credentials right now–in high demand based on the research that you’ve seen and that could be very valuable for today‘s college graduates?.

BB:  Data science–Data scientists as a job description has been the top job in America for three straight years. Anything in the data science realm including cybersecurity, and certainly cloud computing are way up on the list.  But then there’s the ‘always relevant’ ones like project management and financial services. There are many high value credentials in the financial services and wealth management space. Some of this is going to shift over time.  For example, cloud computing wasn’t even on the list five years ago, and now it’s one of the most prevalent out there. 

We want to end by returning to your previous work at Gallup, where you oversaw the release of several important reports, including the 2014 Great Jobs Great Lives Gallup Purdue index report, which is a comprehensive nationally representative study of U S college grads that focus on their long term outcomes in work and life. What is it about the findings that you think are especially compelling?  And might COVID have an impact on those findings in terms of the outcomes and how we think about the outcomes of college for life satisfaction and meaning? 

BB:  That research was absolutely fascinating to be part of–it was the largest representative study of college graduates in US history with a focus on understanding the long-term outcomes of a college degree and what aspects of college are, what I call the magic ingredients, the secret sauce.  There were really just a handful of things that a student either experienced or didn’t experience during college that have a profound relationship with their overall work engagement and their overall wellbeing later in life. 

I mentioned some of these things earlier, like a long-term project that took a semester or more to complete, or a job or an internship where the classroom learning was actually applied–it wasn’t just “I had a job.” The important thing is there was a connection between that job and the learning you were doing in the more traditional academic sense, but there were also a couple other major things like ‘the professors cared about me as a person’ and ‘I had a mentor who encouraged my goals and dreams’. Those graduates who strongly agreed to this last question more than doubled their odds of being engaged in their work and thriving in their wellbeing throughout their lifetime. Not one year out, not five years out – literally across their lifetime.

The research was so clear on what the secret sauce of higher ed is and yet, less than a third hit the mark on completing long term projects or an internship where they applied what they were learning.  And only 2 out of 10 report having a mentor with only 27% agreeing that ‘their professors cared about them as a person’.  So, we have a long way to go with much room for improvement. And here’s what I worry about in the midst of COVID where we’re trying to cut costs and we risk losing sight of the ‘magic in the middle’.  I’ve long said to schools and their leaders that the ‘magic in the middle’ is not about how much money you have. 

It’s about the culture. It’s about what you value, it’s about what you measure.  From my time at Gallup I became aware of one institution that takes the cake on how to mentor, whose alumni strongly agreed that their goals and dreams were encouraged.  This school had alumni outcomes that are three times higher than the national average, and it’s an adult only online university by the name of Western Governors University.  People tend to be very surprised when I say this.  How could an online adult university be crushing it on this metric of mentoring?  Well, they have built a model of professional advising that matches students with mentors one-to-one from the point of matriculation to graduation and with weekly connections.

Now, when I say connect, it’s on Google Hangout, it’s on Skype, whatever medium they want to connect with, but they’re connecting weekly. My point about this is: one, never judge a book by its cover, and two, if we can focus on that secret sauce of mentorship, caring professors, long term meaningful projects…these are things that don’t require money. They take time.  They take focus and intentionality, but this is the kind of stuff that I worry that we’ll lose sight of, because we’ll say, “Oh, we can’t afford to do that.” My answer is you can’t afford not to. 

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