Wally Boston GrEd’10, who was accepted by GSE’s executive doctoral program in higher-education management the year after Kay was denied, echoes that sentiment. Boston is the president and CEO of American Public Education Inc., a publicly traded company that runs American Public University System (APUS), a for-profit college whose operations are entirely Web-based.

“I think a few of my classmates found it interesting that a for-profit institution could have a mission,” he says about his cohort at Penn. “But we do have a mission to be open-access and to be affordable, and we’ve had that mission since our founding.”

APUS was founded in 1991 as American Military University. “Our founder was pretty adamant that many of the traditional schools that served the military didn’t follow a soldier or sailor from base to base,” says Boston. “So if you started a program with, let’s say, a state school down in Texas when you were stationed in Texas, and then you went to North Carolina, and had to switch to a North Carolina school—that place may or may not have the same program you started with, and if it did, some of the degree requirements might be different. So he wanted to start a school that would follow the soldier around.”

The guiding mandate was that undergraduate tuition be priced to allow a soldier to obtain a bachelor’s degree (a prerequisite for becoming an officer) without spending any of his or her own money. The military has a tuition-assistance program that will pay up to $250 per credit hour at an accredited college. That is what APUS charges. The military’s tuition benefit level has remained constant for a decade, which factors into a point of pride that few other colleges of any stripe can match: APUS has not increased undergraduate tuition since 2001. (It has increased tuition for some of its graduate-level and MBA programs, which primarily serve officers aiming to advance beyond the rank of major, or soldiers laying the groundwork for a transition to civilian careers.)

“Back in 2002, at $250 a credit hour, our tuition was lower than private non-profits, and also many of the private for-profits, but it was higher than many of the state schools we viewed as competition,” says Boston. “But in the [last] nine years, the state schools have increased their tuition quite a bit. So right now we believe that [the combined cost of] our undergraduate tuition plus our book grant [for students who carry a minimum 2.0 GPA] puts us lower than just about all the state schools we see.”

The convenience and price point, coupled with the increasingly interactive nature of its online classroom environments, has proven attractive to civilians as well. In 2002, when Boston came to APUS from the healthcare industry, there were about 2,200 students enrolled in its various distance-learning programs. Over the last eight years that number has ballooned to 75,000, of whom approximately 50,000 are active-duty or veteran military.

At Penn, Boston did his dissertation on a topic he had grown passionate about: student retention. “In an online environment, any institution that serves a lot of adults is bound to have a high percentage of churn with its students, particularly if the admissions process is not selective,” he says. “The most-selective schools, places like Penn, have the highest graduation rates; and the least-selective schools have the lowest graduation rates. We are not a selective school. We accept every student who can demonstrate that they have a high school diploma or at least a GED. And so over the years, having had a background in going to selective schools, I felt like I needed to understand the retention issue and solve the puzzle.”

It is not an easy code to crack. APU’s students face challenges that do not typically beset “traditional” college kids, who for the most part cannot be ordered to dodge mortar rounds in the middle of a semester. Nevertheless, Boston says his GSE doctorate has paid dividends. “We’ve designed all kinds of dashboards to monitor activity in classrooms and outside of the classrooms. We study the demographics of our students a lot more deeply. And we’ve actually created an early-warning metric that helps us flag students we think may potentially be in a position where they’re going to drop out, and try to provide them with a mentor and a coach before that happens.”

Internet dashboards designed to flag potential online-college dropouts will not solve America’s education riddle.

Neither will the replication of an Ivy League executive doctoral program’s pedagogy at a small, for-profit college in Southern California. And no matter how much you like the idea of making your 10-year-old solve math problems to unlock her cellphone, that’s not a panacea either—even if you also gave her teacher software capable of categorizing the types of mistakes she made. But that’s exactly why Lynch is keen on giving all of them a boost. To his mind, the lure of the All-Encompassing Education Fix is a mirage. And if you can’t run a mile in one stride, you’d better take every small step that gets you closer to the finish ribbon, even if each one only pushes you an inch or two along.

“So many of these artificial lines we’ve drawn over time—traditional versus nontraditional, charter schools versus district, for-profit versus non-profit, higher-ed verses K-12—so many of these distinctions can be useful descriptions, but they can also become mental roadblocks,” says Frederick Hess, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who also teaches in GSE’s mid-career doctoral program in educational leadership. “What I find neat about Penn is that I think Doug and Andy have very intentionally created an environment—and I think you’ve seen it at a couple other universities, Harvard and Stanford in particular—where the leadership is aggressively seeking people from all of these parts of the pie and recognizing that they all have important roles to play.”

Some education-policy wonks who stump for entrepreneurship can at times seem to be advocating it as an end in itself. Skeptics find it hard to credit as a coherent operational philosophy. After all, what do an executive program for corporate chief learning officers, a business-to-business relationship with Teach For America, and a psychometric tool for assessing grade-school principals—to take just three ideas this story touched on—have to do with one another? To nonbelievers, it suggests a massively fragmented attention span—as though the ADHD kids have stormed the education-reform castle, spilling all their Ritalin pills into the moat on the way in.

“In my mind, it’s all the same thing,” Lynch counters. “NEST, our executive programs, the TFA thing—they’re all simply ways of trying to get out of this box, which is graduate education as it was conceived a hundred years ago.”

They’re also ways to amplify Penn GSE’s influence. For example, research on the effectiveness of TFA teachers has not produced a consensus, but one of the largest studies, by Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond, concluded that uncertified TFA teachers had an insignificant or even negative effect on student achievement compared to teachers who enter the field the old-fashioned way. Hence Lynch’s push to bring TFA corps members into GSE’s classrooms, even if it meant adjusting GSE’s curriculum for them to close the deal.

And even if you agree with Steve Eisman that for-profit giants like the University of Phoenix are the devil’s spawn, come to Earth to bilk the vulnerable at taxpayer expense, you might still see the value in lining up venture capitalists behind a TFA alumna who has a tool that might just help your child’s teacher catch what’s stalling her math progress before the problem snowballs into a C-minus on her next report card.

Yet surely, you might say, having extended the benefit of the doubt that far—surely it is another thing entirely to bring a for-profit-college mogul into your ivory tower and tell her to “steal shamelessly.” But Lynch confirms that those were his exact words to Sabrina Kay. And the truth is that they amount to the clearest distillation of what, to his mind, GSE’s mission should be.

Still, it’s worth hearing the long version.

For the last six years, ever since Penn President Amy Gutmann’s inauguration, the University community has heard the ceaseless beat of a simple-sounding imperative: that Penn must “rise from excellence to eminence.” For Lynch it is a profound mandate.

“It feels like a sound bite. But if you really pull it apart and try and manifest it, it’s really different as a way of operating,” he says.

“If you’re excellent, you’re still proprietary. In fact, you probably try to protect [your areas of competitive advantage]. But eminence implies being magnanimous. Which means that you can sort of give it away. You say, ‘Please, Fremont College, copy what we’re doing and see if it plays out.’ … If we were only excellent, we would then file a lawsuit saying, ‘Hey, you’re copying what we’re doing.’ Whereas being eminent gives us this opportunity to be gracious. It sounds corny, but I would say we breathe it here.

“It’s license to do good.”

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COVER STORY: ( ) This Education By Trey Popp
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