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Cengage CEO Michael Hansen: “Here Are 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Education System” With Penny Bauder

From my perspective, the paramount issue facing U.S. higher education is affordability. Affordability is a growing barrier to education for too many people across the country. With student loan debt ballooning to more than $1.5 trillion, it’s impacting students’ lives for years after graduation — influencing everything from their job choice, family planning and whether […]

From my perspective, the paramount issue facing U.S. higher education is affordability. Affordability is a growing barrier to education for too many people across the country. With student loan debt ballooning to more than $1.5 trillion, it’s impacting students’ lives for years after graduation — influencing everything from their job choice, family planning and whether or not they buy a home. The affordability crisis is having a trickle-down effect. For students, the cost of an education is becoming an increasing burden that can lead them to question the value. With this, many institutions are struggling with retention and witnessing declines in enrollment. To fix our higher-education system in the U.S., affordability must top the list. And I should note, the cost of college and the issue of affordability goes beyond just tuition. Students have a number of expenses including housing, food, transportation, childcare and course materials that they have to juggle. After tuition, the cost of textbooks is the second largest financial stressor facing students today, with the average student spending more than $400 a semester on textbooks. We can do better.


Asa part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Michael Hansen. Michael is the CEO of Cengage, the largest U.S.-based textbook publisher serving the higher education market. Under Michael’s leadership, Cengage has transformed from a print publisher to a company that is creating some of the most highly rated digital teaching and learning solutions for higher education, K-12, library and workforce training markets worldwide. He joined the company as it was on brink of bankruptcy and brought about rapid transformation that ultimately led to the successful launch of Cengage Unlimited in August 2018, the first subscription-style service for college textbooks and course materials for the higher education market.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Michael! 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?

The career path I ended up with today is not exactly one that was meticulously planned. Growing up in a comfortable, modest middle-class family in Germany, I believed strongly in the notion that if I did well in school, I’d have options when it came to a career later in life.

I pursued a law degree and then ultimately ended up in New York City to attend Columbia Business School. After graduation, I took a job in consulting, which is where I realized how passionate I was about helping organizations transform their business.

It was in this role that I gained deep experience and interest in the two sides of business transformation — of course the strategic, analytical elements interested me, but I was also struck by the human side of it all. From a human perspective, it’s about addressing challenges and making tough decisions in a way that is both compassionate and thoughtful, but ultimately can drive results. On the flip side of the coin, the business perspective is about building a bridge between smart analytical insights and intuition, both are critical to informing better decisions.

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?

I assume the most interesting story about my career is that I never planned it. I never expected to be where I am today. My mantra was more seizing the opportunities when they presented themselves, and to never stop learning — especially from my mistakes.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

There are two projects or focus areas for Cengage right now that I’m most excited about because of the real impact they can have for students with respect to higher education affordability.

First is the continued growth and evolution of Cengage Unlimited — the industry’s first all-access digital subscription service for textbooks and course materials. Students pay one price, about $120 a semester for unlimited access to our digital library of eBooks, study guides and additional learning tools, no matter how many they use.

Our goal with Cengage Unlimited has always been to make quality learning more affordable, and therefore more accessible to all students. We are continually innovating, listening to students and professors, to find new ways to add to the platform and make it even more valuable. In the 2018–2019 academic year we were able to save students $60 million on textbooks and course materials, and we are projected to grow this figure to $160 million by the end of this academic year.

As affordability is central to our mission at Cengage, it is also a driving factor behind our proposed merger with McGraw-Hill, which is expected to close in early 2020. This merger will enable the combined company to provide students, educators and academic institutions with more affordable access to superior course materials and learning platforms.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?

Cengage serves more than 11 million of the approximately 20 million students in U.S. higher education. As the largest textbook publisher in the United States, my team and I work alongside educators, institutions and authors to ensure students have the tools they need to succeed in the classroom and beyond. This experience has given me exposure and understanding as to how the education market has evolved, and the unique challenges and opportunities facing the various stakeholders in the market today. Additionally, on the personal side, I’m the father to three boys — one in college, and two still in high school. They are never afraid to give me a firsthand, candid perspective.

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?

There is no doubt that the US education system, especially in higher-ed, has been painfully slow to change. Student habits and technology have changed rapidly over the decades, but the learning experience has remained vastly similar to when you or I were in school. That said, in recent years, we have started to see pockets of positive transformation and a renewed focus on the student that makes me optimistic about where we are headed.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

Perhaps the most positive indication about the direction of the US higher education system is the optimism among students and the diverse opportunities for today’s graduates. Evidence is still strong that a college degree leads to increased income, better job security and overall greater happiness. In a survey we conducted of recent graduates this past spring, the majority (82 percent) feel optimistic about their future and 93 percent think they’ll land a job related to their educational background within six months of graduation. However, as I mentioned, possibly the greatest inhibitor of progress is the sometimes excruciatingly slow pace at which changes are made in higher-ed to improve the system and better serve students. We’ve started to see the needle move in recent years, but we still have a long road ahead to go to make the US higher education system “really great”.

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?

From my perspective, the paramount issue facing U.S. higher education is affordability. Affordability is a growing barrier to education for too many people across the country. With student loan debt ballooning to more than $1.5 trillion, it’s impacting students’ lives for years after graduation — influencing everything from their job choice, family planning and whether or not they buy a home.

The affordability crisis is having a trickle-down effect. For students, the cost of an education is becoming an increasing burden that can lead them to question the value. With this, many institutions are struggling with retention and witnessing declines in enrollment.

To fix our higher-education system in the U.S., affordability must top the list. And I should note, the cost of college and the issue of affordability goes beyond just tuition. Students have a number of expenses including housing, food, transportation, childcare and course materials that they have to juggle. After tuition, the cost of textbooks is the second largest financial stressor facing students today, with the average student spending more than $400 a semester on textbooks. We can do better.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

As the CEO of a technology company, fostering a passion for STEM subjects among today’s students is something that is particularly important. In part selfishly, it is helping to shape our future workforce, but also because I recognize the opportunity it provides for individuals from a variety of backgrounds.

Demand for STEM skills in the workforce has steadily increased in recent decades and shows no sign of slowing down. While this has driven an increased emphasis on the value and importance of STEM education, there is still much more the US education ecosystem can do to increase engagement.

  • First, we must build a strong educational foundation. For today’s socially connected generation, we need to make lessons around STEM, and every subject for that matter, rich, engaging, relevant and informed. Students must be challenged to think critically and learning materials need to bring the outside world into the classroom in a way that speaks to current events.
  • Next, we need to focus on building diversity in STEM studies and related job fields. As education industry stakeholders, we must ensure all students — regardless of gender, race, religion or creed — have access to the same opportunity to learn about STEM and feel empowered to pursue learning and career opportunities in those fields.
  • Finally, we need to provide students with hands-on exposure to applications for STEM education in the real world. I firmly believe in internships and apprenticeships. Letting students (at any age) discover their passions and see the classroom lessons come to life is an incredible way to empower learners. My sons have all had internships, and I support internships and apprenticeship programs within Cengage.

Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?

We are experiencing a major inflection point for gender equity in the workplace. 2019 is the first year that college-educated women make up a greater majority of the workforce than men. However, at the same time, the majority of women are still choosing college majors and career paths that prove a significant impediment to their earning potential. While there are a number of factors that influence this, what studies show time and time again is a confidence gap. In our own survey of recent graduates we found a 13-point gap between the confidence male graduates feel about their chances of landing a job that meets their salary expectations in comparison to women. While antiquated stereotypes that men are better at science and math have been long been debunked, the unconscious bias often still remains. This bias too often keeps young women and girls from pursuing STEM studies and related careers.

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?

As mentioned above, the US education field and business world more broadly need to do a better job at fostering diversity in STEM education and career paths. The ways in which we engage girls doesn’t differ from that of their male counterparts, but we need to focus on removing stigma and ensuring women and girls are given the same exposure as men.

Girls should feel confident in pursuing STEM subjects and know that are equally capable of succeeding in STEM related careers down the line. To instill this confidence, education stakeholders need to ensure they emphasize the opportunity and impact women can have in STEM. Additionally, fostering mentorship programs where young women have the opportunity to learn from and see women leaders in action is crucial to building confidence and showing women a path forward to progress in their careers.

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?

I am not a teacher, but from my perspective as an industry stakeholder and a business leader, I can say that I strongly see the value of students receiving a holistic education.

STEM education and skills are increasingly prevalent in the business world today, especially as automation and the need for deep technology expertise grows. However, these skills are exponentially more valuable when paired with employability skills such as leadership, communication and collaboration. A recent survey of employers found that soft skills are most in-demand, with top desired candidate skills being listening, attention to detail and effective communication. These are attributes that are often not touched in the more analytic and logic-based lessons associated with STEM.

By encouraging students to complement their STEM education with arts and humanities courses, students gain greater exposure to crucial life skills lessons that will give them the best opportunity to succeed when they enter the job market.

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?

Similar tomy response on areas for improvement, if I had the power to change the US education system, it would challenge every stakeholder in the industry — whether it be teachers, institution, bookstore owners, financial aid officers, policymaker and so on — to take on the perspective of the student and ask themselves “what have I done lately to improve the life of the student, to lower the cost for the student and to lower the barriers of entry to education?.” If everyone in the entire ecosystem just took that perspective once a day and thought reflectively about what they have done — and what they could do — I think we could make progress and expedite the pace of impactful change in the industry.

Can you please give us your favorite” Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Definition of listening: paying attention to what somebody is saying with an openness to change one’s mind

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 🙂

Angela Merkel — the leader of my native Germany. She led the country for 16 years and made a courageous and for her uncharacteristically bold decision to allow unlimited flow of migrants into the country a few years ago. She paid a heavy political price. Many have described her as ‘boringly brilliant’ and I would love to hear her perspective.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Readers can follow me on LinkedIn.

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