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Source: "Your Time" Kaplan University Commercial, 2009

“I stand before you today to apologize. The system has failed you. I have failed you. I have failed to help you share your talent with the world and the world needs talent more than ever. Yet it’s being wasted every day by an educational system steeped in tradition and old ideas. Well it’s time for a new tradition. It’s time to realize talent isn’t just in schools like this one. It’s everywhere. It’s time to use technology to rewrite the rules of education. To learn how you learn so we can teach you better. It’s time the university adapted to you rather than you adapting to it. It’s time for a different kind of university. It’s your time.”

These words come from a Kaplan University commercial, in which actor James Avery (Uncle Phil on Fresh Prince of Bel-Air with Will Smith) portrays some overburdened professor with a guilty conscious about

Kaplan University Logo

the state of higher education today. This commercial has been running off and on for more than a year now, but seems to be running more of late during prime-time hours on the channels Noah and I normally watch (Cartoon Network, The Science Channel and History International). It’s a shameful commercial, really, as it alleges a reality that hasn’t existed in higher education for at least twenty years.

But that’s almost besides the main point. The commercial, when it comes right down to it, makes numerous assumptions about education, students and faculty that shows a sense of arrogance on the part of the commercial makers and Kaplan University. One, that higher education is only about earning a piece of paper that enables students to get better-paying jobs and a better start to a career. Two, that the main issue most students face is the inconvenience of a traditional four-year college education — because most four-year institutions require face-to-face contact with their students — not academic preparation, financial aid or other social and psychological issues. Three, that a strictly online education can successfully do all the things that traditional four-year institutions are currently doing, and then do it better.

I’m far from the first person to defend traditional four-year institutions, many of which don’t offer evening or weekend classes, summer classes, distance learning or online opportunities at the undergraduate level. But to suggest that it’s “time the university adapted to you rather than you adapting to it?” Really?

By this, does Kaplan mean that students seeking to earn a bachelor’s degree need only a university that meets their needs, their needs for a job, for instance, rather than a place that helps them learn how to think for themselves? A place that helps them understand how and why they believe what they believe in politically, socially, culturally, to expand their horizons, their circle of friends, their networks of contacts for their careers and not just for jobs? Institutions that enable students to look within, to see the persons they want to be for now and the future? Is this what Kaplan University means when it says that typical colleges and universities are part of an “educational system steeped in tradition and old ideas?”

Let’s put this another way. Would “Professor”James Avery, for instance, recommend that aspiring actors hone their acting chops online through Kaplan University, or would he recommend brilliant drama and theater arts departments at “traditional” four-year institutions? There are limits to what can be done educationally speaking online when it comes to social interactions that lead to connections, friendships, business networks and learning. Kaplan University should keep that in mind when it promises the moon and the stars to students whose only concern is a better-paying job. Both perspectives are as short-sighted as a three-month-old baby.