If Michael Bloomberg Is Looking for Ideas…

Career College Central Summary:

  • This week, the Bloomberg Philanthropies announced a project — in collaboration, surprisingly, with the Aspen Institute — to steer high-achieving, low-income students to what it’s calling “top colleges.” The Times even quotes Michael Bloomberg buying wholeheartedly into the myth: “If we really believe that America is the world’s greatest meritocracy — and I do…” said the billionaire. Well, yes, he probably does.
  • It’s disappointing, but hardly surprising. The Calvinist streak runs deep in American culture, even among folks who would never call themselves Calvinists.
  • At the very same time, though, EDMC — a struggling for-profit higher ed chain — announced that it will be “going private” once again. In other words, management will buy back enough stock to take control of the company, thereby freeing it from having to meet the expectations, and reporting requirements, that come with external shareholders. 
  • And I thought, hmm.
  • DeVry was publicly traded when I worked there.  (It still is.)  It had a frustrating habit of making changes so quickly that people on campus were constantly on the far left side of the learning curve.  There wasn’t enough time to get good at one thing before the next one came along.  When I asked why that was, the answer I got was “market responsiveness.”  When you have quarterly estimates to hit, you can’t wait several years for a given experiment to play itself out.  You need to take decisive action again and again, even if the cascade of changes reduces the chances of any particular change succeeding.  At one point, three different versions of College Algebra were running alongside each other, reflecting consecutive curricular changes crashing into the reality of irregular student schedules. It was a nightmare.
  • The willingness to offer an actual, concrete alternative is why I’m such a fan of SNHU, and why I’m fascinated by Western Governors University. Whether they wind up getting it right or not, they’re at least trying.  They’re making new visions concrete, and inviting comparisons.  In a way, for a while, that’s what publicly traded for-profits did.  If Bloomberg wants to make a difference for more than just a lucky and talented few, here’s his chance.  Even if it doesn’t work, the failure could be instructive. 

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Photo Credit: lev radin / Shutterstock.com

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