I’d address our student debt crisis through personal finance education. If you graduate with 35,000 dollars in debt, you’ve got to get a job in six months to keep that debt from spiraling out of control. We need to minimize ignorance around personal finance. Finance education should start as early as pre-K. It creates a vicious cycle and lack of personal finance education truly contributes to poverty. We have to do better here.
As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Brian Kibby, CEO of Modern Campus.
Brian Kibby is the CEO of Modern Campus — higher education’s only “student first” modern learner engagement platform. He has deep expertise in personalized learning, and an exceptional record of growth and digital transformation at two of the largest EdTech and content companies in the world: McGraw-Hill and Pearson. Brian has helped turn personalized learning into a global movement to increase student performance, while making education more affordable. Brian holds a B.S. in Finance and is a U.S. Army Veteran.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?
I was raised in a military family — my dad was an enlisted soldier for 40 years — and education was not emphasized in our home. The path was, “Graduate from high school, get a job. If you go to community college, you can stay here for free. If not, you’re paying rent.”
And so, I joined the army at 17, and from a young age I was surrounded by officers and non-commissioned officers who had their acts together — and I had the opportunity to listen and learn from them. I spent my time listening hard and working hard. I went to school at night, and then I got the education bug. As I started to realize my own potential, I got excited about helping others achieve their own.
From the beginning, I understood that the team with the best players wins. Therefore, I invested my whole professional life in doing just that — relentlessly hiring the best people and creating environments where they can set their talents free.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
After college, I briefly dated a woman who came from an elite background, including a premium education. Unfortunately, we were not a good fit, and when she realized I was breaking up with her, she let me have it. Rather than arguing with her, though, I just listened and learned.
“Brian, you’re not going to go very far in life,” she told me.
And I responded, “Tell me more.”
She told me, “You’re the kind of guy who wears a brown belt with black shoes.”
I didn’t know that was a thing! So, I asked her to tell me more.
“You’re the kind of guy at sales meetings who thinks they’re there to have fun instead of networking, molding the team that you want to lead as a leader someday, and managing up,” she continued.
“Tell me more!”
“I suspect you didn’t go to very many dinner parties or cocktail receptions growing up, so you didn’t learn how to behave at those,” she said. “You’ll make a good low-level manager someday, but that’s it. You just don’t know what you don’t know.”
And… she was right!
My point is this: I’ve learned to relax and restrain my defensive instincts when receiving feedback. Instead of fighting, I take every advantage to learn. When someone critiques me, I ask them to “Tell me more.” Sometimes people are 100% right, and sometimes they’re 3% right. But there’s can be as much to learn from that 3% as there is from that 100%.
Don’t fight. Just listen and learn.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
The most exciting thing I do every day is help people achieve their full potential. People are projects that never end and if you love building people, they’re the most important “projects” in the world. Ultimately, it’s the only thing that matters.
With Modern Campus, we’re building out an incredibly powerful student engagement platform. What we ask ourselves every day is, “How do we take people from learners to earners in the most personalized and efficient way possible? And how can we work with our partners at colleges, universities and other learning organizations to do that?”
As a result, we’re in a position to innovate organically and energetically. We’ve got a terrific innovation team, and we’re acquiring companies that align with our vision. We’ve just bought a company called DIGARC, who have been building a world-class curriculum development platform for 20 years. That fits with what we do, because when a student is looking at prospective learning institutions, the first place they go to is their website to see their programs. If a learner is browsing a website powered by Modern Campus, they will find a very personalized, efficient and informative path through that learning institution. We’re able to feed them personalized and relevant information that’s aligned with their interests and illuminate potential academic and career pathways. We can also make sure they fully understand their expected costs… and their expected return on their education investment!
When we make information relevant and easily accessible to every single prospective learner — whether they’re 17 or 77 — that individual is more likely to find the right institution for them, enroll and complete their credential on time with less debt.
That’s one of the things we’re working on that we’re tremendously excited about.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?
People build their expertise in any field through the generosity of others. After all, people love to teach, and they love to help.
I have had the benefit of being mentored by great teachers and phenomenal people throughout my 30 years in education. Beyond that, I have had the good fortune to work with thousands of faculties, students and administrators in that time — all of whom shared their insights in one way or another.
As it is said, if you pay attention for long enough you might learn something. That’s where expertise begins to emerge.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?
Rating the results of our education system is a complex task, and it’s frankly dependent on the pathways different individuals choose to take.
In the U.S., we constantly talk about how expensive postsecondary education is — and we use debt numbers to back it up. Cumulative student debt has reached 1.7 trillion dollars. The average college graduate is carrying over 30,000 dollars in student loan debt. And while most students enroll in higher education to achieve career outcomes, 4 out of 10 degree holders are under-employed when they graduate. Looking at those numbers, many might give our education system a low grade.
Having said that, I believe fiercely in personal responsibility and accountability. And the fact is, the instructors and faculty at every college or university I’ve ever visited care deeply about the quality of the learning experience they’re providing. And humbly, I’ve invested more time at more colleges and universities — and met with more faculty, leaders and students over 30 years — than nearly anyone on earth.
So frankly, some of the onus falls on students to take more responsibility for the quality of their education — and for HOW, WHERE and WHY they are choosing to spend their money.
When students go to class, they should sit in the front, take responsibility for their education and get good grades. After all, graduating with less than a 3.0 GPA will likely lead to underemployment — contributing to the statistic I just shared above. If we look at the underemployment of recent graduates through this new lens, it’s not as much an indictment of the quality of postsecondary education as it reflects how seriously some students take their own education.
All this to say that rating the results of the American education system is immensely complex. The quality of the education on offer is excellent — if a student takes full advantage.
There is truth to the critiques of the cost and accessibility of postsecondary education, however, and those issues must be dealt with. But the first step even to addressing this challenge is to highlight the importance of personal accountability. To that end, a basic understanding of personal finance is essential.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
- My first answer will surprise you and your readers: Affordability. A college education in the U.S. is very affordable — if every consumer makes the right choice for them. The community college system in the U.S. is the envy of the world. It’s been studied endlessly, and many community colleges offer free access to degree programs. In my neighborhood, Harper College has the “Harper Promise”: If you sign up as a high school freshman and complete a certain amount of community service, you can attend Harper for free. Like many community colleges across North America, Harper is a fantastic school that prioritizes academic excellence and relevant outcomes for its students. On average, a community college education costs about 5,000 dollars a year, and programs are often grant-funded and financial aid eligible. For students looking to earn a bachelor’s degree, you can go to a community college for two years, earn your associate’s degree and then transfer to a high-quality state school to finish the last two years of your bachelor’s degree. And nearly everyone is within driving distance of a high-quality state school. There are incredibly affordable pathways to high-quality degrees and credentials available to everyone. It’s important for students to be open to more options to achieving their goals.
- Secondly, our focus on outcomes. At every level of every institution, there’s increasing recognition of the importance of helping learners achieve their goals. We’re creating programming and credentials that help students gain and communicate their distinct and differentiating skills to employers, and we’re ensuring programming is lined up with the present and future needs of the labor market.
- The third thing is faculty. Faculty and instructors across the U.S. and around the world are some of the most capable and committed people you’ll ever meet. These are individuals who are deeply passionate about learner success and about helping students achieve their goals.
- Fourth is the phenomenal innovation happening outside of traditional higher education. There are hundreds of excellent organizations that provide lifelong learning and minimize skills gaps all over the world. Businesses like Guild Education, HackerU, 2U, Ed2Go, Coursera — the list of innovators in our space trying to ensure that more people have access to great learning opportunities goes on and on. Further, there are institutions doing a fantastic job innovating within traditional higher education. Pioneering higher education institutions across the country are actively reworking their models to ensure they’re able to serve the evolving needs of their learners and their communities.
- And finally, the last thing I want to highlight that’s working really well is employer commitment to education. Employers are taking an active role — and investing — in reskilling and upskilling for their teams. After all, employers are on the frontlines of the massive skills gaps between available jobs and applicants. And to be clear, there are hundreds of thousands of excellent jobs staying vacant because the labor market lacks people with the right skills. So, employers are actively skilling up workers themselves. Globally, employers are innovating education like we’ve never seen before, and that’s immensely exciting. And, as competition improves everything, we’ll see how higher education system benefit immensely as we see prospective learners vote with their feet on the programs they feel fit their needs best.
Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?
- First, as I indicated earlier, we need to make personal finance education more accessible to every American. People have had no help or education in managing their personal finances, and it’s currently not something we teach. This is one of the major drivers behind the nearly 2 trillion dollars student debt crisis and the equally massive credit card debt crisis. And by taking on massive debt, individuals lose the ability to take on roles that truly set their talents free. Instead, people are forced to take the first job that comes along, contributing to their underemployment and ultimately standing in the way of their ability to enter a career path that makes it possible to pay off those debts in the first place while they take on increasing amounts of credit card debt to make ends meet. It’s tragic, it’s a vicious cycle and it’s something we have the power to fix through accessible and democratized personal finance education.
- Next, the higher education industry suffers from a lack of willingness to adapt to new technologies and business models. One thing that’s common in our industry, for example, is to see competitors succeeding with outcomes-oriented programming (like workforce development offerings), but then decide not to respond. We have so many higher education institutions whose capacity to innovate is limited by the outdated belief that workforce-oriented education is overly vocational and misaligned with the “true purpose” of the academy. We see it every day. Our industry has innovative leaders like Dr. Michael Crow at Arizona State University and Dr. Paul LeBlanc at Southern New Hampshire University, who have been laying out competitive frameworks and roadmaps designed to leverage technology and pathways that maximize their impact and reach. But other colleges and universities aren’t keeping pace while these leaders fundamentally change the nature of the competitive landscape. The innovative pathways are out there, and every institution should find ways to adopt these principles and adapt them to their particular institutions.
- Third, our higher education model is based on transactional, short-term relationships with students. It’s expensive for colleges and universities to attract students, but most institutions continue to focus exclusively on student relationships that last only two or four years. The vast majority of today’s students are non-traditional, and 68% of adults considering enrolling in education programming say they prefer non-degree or alternative credential options. We absolutely need to do more to build lifelong relationships with our students. In the commercial sector, companies would go bankrupt if the exclusive focus was on short term, transactional relationships. Instead, commercial leaders provide experiences that allow us to work with our partners for life. The relationship between students and institutions has to change to reflect the new reality of lifelong learning.
- Fourth, and related to the above, is that we need to take lifelong learning more seriously. Right now, “lifelong learning” or some version of that phrase is in the strategic plans of most colleges and universities but isn’t being actively pursued. Instead, the entire institutional approach to lifelong learning for many colleges and universities is left to under-resourced and under-supported continuing and workforce education divisions. It’s critical that these divisions gain the strategic backing of their institutions to more meaningfully build a lifelong learning environment for students of all ages.
- Finally, we need to improve the development of learner-to-earner pathways. The primary mission of colleges and universities is to help learners achieve their full potential. This means positioning them to get them full-employment jobs that help them launch their careers and lives. Right now, too many students are graduating and taking jobs that leave them underemployed. The first step we can take to addressing this obstacle us to build up career centers. Improve those, and you’ll see a stronger workforce and a stronger culture around higher education overall.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
We have a long way to go to engaging young people in STEM areas. Creating wider access to early education — starting at pre-kindergarten — has to be our main focus. These programs are proven to support academic and career success down the road and can be the catalyst for socioeconomic development for children at every economic level. Unfortunately, there is a major access gap to pre-K education that bars many from its benefits. We need to start STEM education early and make it widely accessible.
We also need to find ways to expand personalized learning at the K-12 level. Students from affluent backgrounds have access to personal tutoring and other learning supports, but we need to leverage technology to really democratize these kinds of personalized learning experiences. To get around the income gap, we have to scale more adaptive and personalized learning technologies in the classroom.
Third, we need to make short-course certifications more common across the K-12 space. Certifying and credentialing workforce-relevant skills is common for postsecondary institutions but bringing it into elementary and high school education would help students see the pathways their education opens up to them and prepare them for a lifetime of learning. For example, imagine how powerful it would be for every student to graduate high school with a certain level of coding experience and a credential certifying their competency.
Ultimately, we need to make STEM education more accessible, more personalized and more relevant across the K-12 landscape.
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
It’s so important to engage all of us. By creating access to high-quality education for traditionally under-served or overlooked populations — in this case, young girls and women — you create the foundations for a more powerful economy.
We’re also seeing a massive shortage of highly qualified people in the labor force in general. That extends to the tech field as well. It’s about access and inclusion.
On top of that, we must do a better job training our population and expanding our skilled workforce. Especially in an era of tightening immigration restrictions, we as employers no longer have the capacity to look overseas to address skills gaps. As such, we have a heightened responsibility to train the people we have.
Beyond all that though, better engaging girls and women in STEM subjects is simply the right thing to do.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
More and more women are in leadership roles, which is hugely impactful to forging pathways into these fields for girls and women. But we need to do more.
Firstly, executives at every organization have a responsibility to take diversity, equity and inclusion seriously. Tone from the top truly matters. When young women see women in leadership positions — especially in STEM fields at the highest levels of large companies, entrepreneurial companies, and startups — it plants the seed and makes the pathway more viable. There simply must be more inclusion programs that forge pathways for women into senior leadership roles.
As I mentioned earlier, early education is another significant contributor to mobility and inclusion. We need to build programs that encourage girls to get involved in STEM subjects at the pre-K level, just like we do for young boys. Early education around STEM really matters.
Lastly, companies can make huge strides to supporting this work. Many CEOs speak platitudinally about supporting women in tech but doing the work that backs up the talk is critically important. For example, CEOs need to actively mentor women in tech — not just talk about the importance of mentorship. What’s more, we need to adopt inclusion programs, promote women in tech and ensure they’re represented on councils. Companies must launch diversity, equity and inclusion advisory boards at their companies and the senior-most person in the company must be part of that board. After all, without passionate and focused support from senior leaders, these efforts ultimately fizzle out. We as executives have to move beyond “LinkedIn Activism” and do the work to make diversity, equity and inclusion hallmarks of our companies and hallmarks of our industries. This is immensely important to engaging girls and women in STEM, because this work makes it clear that we need them at the table.
As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?
STEM subjects and hard skills are incredibly important, but so is balance. I run technology companies, and I was a finance undergraduate, but I was also heavily involved in drama and theatre. Throughout my career, I’ve always loved to hire talented kids from liberal arts backgrounds as much as I like to hire people with hardcore technology skills.
For folks in the arts, we can help them become strong technologists by proving pathways to earn technical certifications as they progress toward their liberal arts undergraduate degrees. For individuals with a STEM background to become leaders, they must develop communication skills and other strengths typically developed through liberal arts education.
We must actively blend arts and sciences because a great engineer or a great developer is ultimately a creator. There’s an artistry to these fields, and we can’t separate the two.
If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- First and foremost, if I had the power to change the entire U.S. educational infrastructure, I would start by making teaching our most sought-after profession. And that starts by addressing teacher pay. In Luxembourg, the starting salary for a high school teacher with no experience is €70,000 (84,000 USD). The peak salary for a veteran teacher is €124,000 (150,000 USD). The teaching profession needs to be competitive and incentivized so that the very best among us want to be educators. Unfortunately, the teaching profession right now is not particularly competitive… at least not in the right ways. By changing the compensation structure (including bonuses for performance), we can help to attract the best and brightest to the profession.
- Second, I’d address our student debt crisis through personal finance education. If you graduate with 35,000 dollars in debt, you’ve got to get a job in six months to keep that debt from spiraling out of control. We need to minimize ignorance around personal finance. Finance education should start as early as pre-K. It creates a vicious cycle and lack of personal finance education truly contributes to poverty. We have to do better here.
- Third, I’d change how we think about paths to success in education — especially in how we think about vocational schools. Many people shouldn’t pursue a traditional academic path. For many people, vocational schools are a premium path to wealth and success. They should be positioned and marketed as such, but they’re currently seen as the “alternative” for people who “can’t make it” at a “real college”. People who pursue vocational education have the capacity to graduate with minimal debt and immediately find pathways into good jobs in sustainable careers. They have the capacity to be making hundreds of thousands of dollars per year with no debt by the time they turn 30. For example, a carpenter understudy can evolve into a general contractor. A plumber can evolve into a business owner. These are pathways to financial security — and even wealth — that start at the vocational institute.
- Fourth, I’d recenter our focus towards establishing a true lifelong learning culture. People shouldn’t see education as something that happens between the age of 5 and 22. Instead, we should always be learning. Education must be recognized as a constant state of progress. Our education is never “done”, because being educated is a continuous pursuit.
- And fifth, if I could wave a wand, I would ensure our community colleges receive the respect and support they’re due. The Biden administration is on the right path there and creating mechanisms that help these mission-oriented institutions expand, evolve and serve. Full access to lifelong learning opportunities can and have always been found there.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“It’s not about where you were, it’s about where you are and where you’re going.”
I’ll illustrate the power of that quote by sharing another. The character AMC’s Don Draper from Mad Men said, “When you walk into a room, you bring your whole life with you.” In essence, everyone gets to decide what parts of their past they use to define themselves — and to what extent. People have the ability to learn and grow from all their life experiences, but without being exclusively defined by their circumstances. The fact is that your background doesn’t define you, it simply shapes you.
So, “It’s not about where you were, it’s about where you are and where you’re going.”
I reflect on this quote nearly every day. I’m 55, and I run a market-leading, transformational technology company. For my whole career, I’ve been around people who are smarter, faster and more agile than me — but I get to decide what I do with that. I don’t let my past define me or hold me back. I use all my experiences and perspective to recognize that I must continue to learn, to evolve and to grow. Ultimately, I’ve learned how to adapt in a different world.
“It’s not about where you were, it’s about where you are…” and, what’s more, “it’s about where you’re going!”
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I’d love to share a meal with Oprah Winfrey.
Nearly everything I’ve learned in my life is exemplified by Oprah. From how she thinks, to how she treats other people, she has adapted and evolved — and she continues to adapt and evolve. She’s giving us all a daily master class in authenticity.
And when I think about my favorite quote — “It’s not about where you were, it’s about where you are and where you’re going” — she’s truly a master in that arena. Her circumstances and challenges from childhood are well known. But she’s persevered, overcome and directly influenced multiple generations. Oprah is truly a force, and I would love to share a meal with her.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!