What happens when you unleash an entrepreneurship evangelist on
an education school? Meet Doug Lynch, the vice dean bent on making Penn GSE a hub for social entrepreneurs, venture capitalists,
and next-generation educational reform.
BY TREY POPP
Sabrina Kay GrEd’09 was nobody’s idea of a typical student.
For one thing, the fashion-industry entrepreneur came to the United States as a 19-year-old Korean who didn’t speak enough English—as she would say years later—to order lunch at McDonald’s. For another, by the time she applied to Penn’s Graduate School of Education, she had already retired. And really, what does a thirty-something California girl with “good, eight-figure money in my checking account” need with a doctorate in education?
That’s a fine question, but put it aside for the moment, because in 2007 Sabrina Kay was facing a more pressing one: What does a doctoral candidate need with an eight-figure checking account?
She had been thinking about the performance gap between America’s K-12 education system, which is lambasted every time US kids finish 20 places behind the Finns on an international test, and its universities, which remain the envy of the world. “What happens between 18 and 19 for these students?” as she somewhat facetiously puts it. “Do they get smarter overnight—in one year? Or do we drop a lot of our students on the street?”
She was pretty sure it was the street. Too many young adults were falling through the crack between four-year universities and community colleges. Pick any reason you wanted—breakneck tuition increases among the former, insufficient capacity among the latter, uncertainty about the real economic value of a diploma from either one—it didn’t matter. Kay thought she knew how to deliver the kind of education that would help these overlooked people thrive. Namely, the same kind she was getting at what she called her Penn “brain spa,” the new Executive Program in Work-Based Learning Leadership, offered by GSE in partnership with Wharton.
The thing was, just writing a dissertation wasn’t going to do it for her. “I’m more of a practitioner than an academic,” she says now. “I needed a laboratory to kind of test out some of my theories. So I bought one.”
To be precise, she bought a college in southern California about 45 minutes from where she lived. Nominally a for-profit institution, it was losing about $1.5 million a year for its private-equity owners. “They wanted to dump it,” says Kay. “And of course, here comes Sabrina, and I paid cash for it.”
She renamed it Fremont College, and got down to the task of remaking it—largely in the image of the very GSE-Wharton program she was now attending, via cross-country commute, in intensive week-long blocks.
“When you look at the Wharton Executive program, you’re not just taking the brightest and the greatest—you’re taking anyone who can pay the money,” Kay says. “And you have to inject the knowledge in one week, and give them a very specific outcome, which is either learn to read financial statements, or learning leadership so that you become a better person.” Kay wanted to do the same thing, albeit for mid- to low-income adults whose previous academic experience had, to put it gently, lacked rigor. “So I sat there and kind of did a data input of what we were doing, hour by hour, at Wharton, and drew up a model with six steps.”
This she showed to Doug Lynch, the vice dean of GSE and the person responsible for starting the Work-Based Learning Leadership program. She showed it to other GSE professors. She made adjustments and additions, sometimes appropriating whole classroom exercises into her curriculum plan. What she wanted to know was whether she could copy the most effective parts of her executive-doctorate program and paste them into the for-profit educational tracks at Fremont College—if, as she later put it at an education-industry conference, she could “knock off Wharton.”
Lynch answered with a memorable piece of advice: “Steal shamelessly.”
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COVER STORY: ( ) This Education By Trey Popp
Photography by Chris Crisman C'03 and Ethan Pines C'92
©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette