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Disrupting Higher Education: An Interview with John Katzman

By April 13, 2016 Q & A One Comment

John Katzman has long been an innovator in the higher education and K-12 space. He has founded and run three education companies: The Princeton Review, 2U and Noodle. He sits on the Boards of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the National Association of Independent Schools, and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Recently, I sat down with him to discuss his latest venture and what he envisions for the future of higher education.

Tell me about your latest venture with the Noodle Companies. What is the overall mission and how are things going?

We’re a studio addressing the problem of the terrible marketplaces in education. Each of the three operating companies is trying to connect learners, educators and technologists in some way. Noodle.com helps parents and students find the right school, tutor, negotiating seminar, lacrosse coach, etc. Noodle Partners helps universities use technology to lower costs and raise engagement and outcomes. Noodle Markets helps K-12 districts do procurement more quickly and with better results.

Disruption in higher ed is accelerating. Where do you think the biggest disruptions will occur? How do you think that will impact higher ed?

The rise of good technology has made real change possible, and the rising cost of higher ed has made change more urgent. I think the biggest change will be a massive consolidation of the space, largely through mergers (many forced) of smaller public and private schools.

Noodle Partners focuses on increasing accessibility and affordability to higher education, specifically through online programming — of course, that’s our biggest interest at Learning House, too. What are the biggest challenges colleges and universities face in bringing programs online? How can they overcome these?

What we do  combine great services and tech to support 24/7 learning— is hard; not a single traditional school has been able to create a program of quality and scale without the help of someone like us. We can also help them apply those services and tech to lower cost and raise engagement in their campus-based programs. We simply need to employ business models that make that economically feasible.

There has been a lot of chatter recently about rethinking the model of higher education, from offering free community college to a focus on alternative types of credentials, such as micro-degrees and bootcamps to competency-based education. What kind of alternative credentials do you see coming out on top? What models will emerge, and when?

Undergrad and grad will be affected differently, as will more and less elite institutions. In general, I see alternative credentials replacing professional master’s; a good undergraduate education will still be important, and students headed for an academic career will still get PhDs. The good news is that traditional universities can compete in that marketplace with a battery of stackable certificates which are price competitive with those offered by alternative players like General Assembly. I’m a skeptic about micro-credentials; if the credential doesn’t get you a job, it’s not worth the bits describing it.

As digital natives come of age, how are those expectations of technology changing higher education? How can institutions adapt to meet these changing expectations?

Most universities spend only 15 to 20 percent of revenue on teaching and learning. The costs of support, campus, athletics, recruiting, administration, etc. are the rest. Rather than look to MOOCs and other ways of cutting faculty costs, schools can use technology to dramatically lower the other 80 percent  of costs while providing a better experience and better outcomes. That’s as true of their campus-based programs as it is of their online offerings.

Do you see higher education in our country in a better place in 10 years from the measurements of cost, outcomes, and number of students educated? And if so, why?

Yes. Enough schools are using technology better that the others (with the exception of a handful of high-endowment schools) will have no choice but to follow them or fail. And more and more foundations, companies and government are looking at outcomes data to focus everyone there as well.

You have a unique perspective of both serving the K-12 and the higher education market for the last two decades.  What trends exist in the K-12 arena that might be beneficial for the higher education marketplace to adapt?

One thing I’m watching includes altschool and a few others, and involves a centralized administration with small schools populated entirely by faculty. It’s very efficient and could be very effective — especially if combined with online programs that are easier to implement in higher ed.

 Finally, what other opportunities or challenges in the higher education marketplace do you see not properly being addressed?

There are many, Todd. We are in the foothills of a consolidation of the higher ed space. While many firms, including ours, are focused on helping our partner universities thrive, there’s no good firm helping to put together networks of schools that might do well by combining their efforts in innovative ways.

About Todd Zipper

Todd Zipper serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer at Learning House. He joined Learning House as Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer during the Weld North Holdings LLC acquisition in 2011. In his role, Todd oversees all operations and provides strategic management. Before joining Learning House, Todd co-founded and served as Chief Operating Officer for Education Connection. Todd can be reached at: tzipper@learninghouse.com