“Schools need to be transparent about starting salaries by major, so students know what they can expect to earn after graduation.” with Ken Ruggiero

Schools need to be transparent about starting salaries by major, so students know what they can expect to earn after graduation. The government has access to this information and should share it if schools are unwilling to. Our team launched the Bright Futures™ Engine to help bring transparency to the college decision journey by helping students and […]

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Schools need to be transparent about starting salaries by major, so students know what they can expect to earn after graduation. The government has access to this information and should share it if schools are unwilling to. Our team launched the Bright Futures™ Engine to help bring transparency to the college decision journey by helping students and parents evaluate their college investment return.

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 Ken Ruggiero, Chairman & CEO of Ascent Student Loans.

Ken is a veteran and innovator in higher education finance. With more than 25 years managing FinTech start-ups through Fortune 1,000 companies, he has helped them create meaningful change and improve their financial services delivery. While others may talk about driving change in how students finance their higher education, Ken has made it his mission to make improvements through a growing eco-system of student-focused initiatives, including the creation of Ascent’s non-cosigned loans for undergrad students, the creation of ISAs with accelerated technical learning programs (bootcamps), the creation of Ascent’s Bright Futures Engine (providing students insight into their educational return on investment), and the design of HIR(ED) Summits (bringing together thought leaders across the growing technical bootcamp space to identify and work together to solve the industry’s biggest issues). He founded Goal Solutions, which now manages over $26 billion in assets and has led companies that originated over $10 billion of student loans.

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?

Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here and share my story.

Neither of my parents went to college, but they made it clear that college was important. At a very young age, they told my brothers and me that not only are we going to college, but we are going to have to pay for it ourselves, so it was time to start working and saving. I remember my dad bought a Dairy Queen franchise in the ’70s, and I started working at one of the stores when I was only five years old. By the time I was 18, I had saved enough money to attend the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. I worked while going to school, including winter and summer breaks, and I saved most of the money I earned.

It wasn’t quite as easy as it is today to research career paths when I went to college, so I didn’t know what major to pick back then. My parent’s advice was, “Every company needs an accountant — you should study accounting.” So, I did! I saw accounting as a steppingstone to learn more about how businesses worked financially. I always knew that I wanted to be a CEO one day and saw a career path by becoming a CFO.

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?

In 2007, I was promoted from CFO to President and COO of Goal Financial. I hired and trained my replacement over a 4-year time period, which was an incredibly rewarding experience.

Then, in October of 2007, Congress approved a law that changed the economics for the government-guaranteed loans we were originating. By November of 2007, with less than one year sitting as President, I had to let go of more than 200 employees because we were downsizing the business. We had about 250 total employees at the time, so I had to let more than 80% of our company know their jobs were being eliminated. It wasn’t easy and looking back now, it was one of the most difficult decisions I ever made. Many of the employees helped grow a top 10 lender in the country, and they didn’t deserve this outcome.

That happened more than ten years ago, but I still reflect on it today. I learned that you need to be authentic, transparent, and, most of all, empathetic to your employees no matter the circumstances — good and bad. Your employees are people, and they deserve to be treated as people.

It was also eye-opening to me that in a recession, there are opportunities. We kept as many employees as we could and started an entirely new business. I continue to work with many of the same employees to this day..

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

I’m involved in a few exciting new projects.

Right now, I am working on introducing Income Share Agreements, ISAs, to the education market. This is something I have been working on for about 5 years now. ISAs are designed to hold schools, students, and the financer accountable for outcomes: graduation rates and securing a job. Traditional 4-year schools have ignored outcomes for too long. Recently, innovative coding bootcamps have adopted ISAs, and students have been benefitting greatly.

I am also working alongside Goal Solutions leaders to form a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to inspire learners, especially those in disadvantaged neighborhoods. We want to provide better access to high-quality, affordable education and training programs, so they can secure jobs and pursue lifelong professional careers.

In 2019, National University formed a technology advisory board and invited me to be a member. My role is to advise the organization on strategic decisions on new technology systems that impact the school community (students, faculty, and staff). This is something I am incredibly passionate about.

I am also a founding sponsor of Conscious Capitalism’s San Diego Chapter and sit on the board of Founders First Capital Partners, a San Diego-based organization that educates and lends money to minority-led businesses.

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

It has been a privilege and honor to speak nationwide on panels about the state of education finance and the lending industry. I have spoken on panels, such as the International Institute for Business Information & Growth LLC (iiBIG), ABS East, ABS West, Lendit, Education Finance Council, and Marketplace Lending. I have also been interviewed by publications like Forbes and The Washington Post.

I believe my 30 years of experience in the finance industry and my unique insights, with over 17 of those years dedicated to higher education, make me an authority in the education field. At Ascent, we’ve recently been named the best private student loan company by Forbes Advisor and ranked #1 on Saving for College, The Balance, and Dollar Geek.

But, the topic also hits close to home. I have one son who is a college senior and another who graduated college last year. I’m familiar with the education system from both my professional background and also from my personal life.

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?

The short answer is — “Average.”

About 60% of students who start college don’t finish, and the highest percentage of dropouts is freshman students. I see this as a reflection of the problems we have in our K-12 systems and a failure of the higher education system to admit to. The earlier we can support students to continue their education, the better prepared they will be as they seek higher education opportunities after high school.

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

I can only name 4. The 4 areas of the US education system that are going really great right now are:
1.) return on investments for graduate schools,
2.) the return on investments for community colleges,
3.) better access to education for first-time learners and minorities, and
4.) competency-based learning for adult learners.

Graduate schools have historically done well from a return on investment perspective. Thanks to federal and state aid, community colleges provide a great return on investment for students, as well, obtaining an associate degree or completing core classes for a bachelor’s degree.

Since the ’70s, the department of education has focused on opening greater access to higher education for first-time learners and minorities. Many take for granted that colleges used to be walled gardens. Many students thought they were not worthy or eligible to attend. There is still work to be done, but progress has been great.

Schools like Western Governors University (WGU) have been pioneering for competency-based learning focused on adult learners. They proved it is more important to show your understanding of the material versus showing that you sat in a classroom for 3 months.

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?

Yes, the 5areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement are:
1.) transparency of starting salaries by major after graduation,
2.) accountability for schools on the outcomes of their students,
3.) borrowing from the government,
4.) regulations for schools that are not performing well, and

5.) graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 4 years.

Schools need to be transparent about starting salaries by major, so students know what they can expect to earn after graduation. The government has access to this information and should share it if schools are unwilling to. Our team launched the Bright Futures™ Engine to help bring transparency to the college decision journey by helping students and parents evaluate their college investment return.

Four-year schools should be held accountable for the outcomes of their students. Schools should be penalized when students don’t graduate. They should be rewarded once students graduate and secure a job supporting their debts to complete their education.

In terms of borrowing, the money the government lends to students should be repaid through payroll deduction. This will lower the cost of supporting the loans and make loan repayment more affordable after graduation or leaving school.

Schools that are not performing should be identified and penalized. In the Obama administration, the 90/10 rule and the Gainful Employment Rule were created and later shelved by the Trump administration. These 2 laws should be put back into effect and enforced for all schools, not just for-profit schools.

Students and families incur significant expenses if a student doesn’t graduate in 4 years. Students are often not getting the support they need from the school when they pick a major and set their class schedules.

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

STEM fields offer long-term sustainable economic growth, but there is an opportunity to engage younger people. The 3 ways the US Education System can increase engagement is by:
1.) reaching out to young people earlier in their educational journey,

2.) supporting more women as they seek careers in STEM fields, and

3.) advocating for more diverse STEM role models.

Encouraging an early interest in STEM education is imperative, and STEM curricula should be emphasized earlier in the education process.

Women continue to be underrepresented in STEM careers (28%). This underrepresentation can be even more frustrating. Women account for at least half of the college-educated employees in the workforce. With the STEM gender gap, young women need to be encouraged and motivated to pursue an interest in science and math and teach these subjects earlier and in more compelling ways. Parents of young girls should also encourage them to participate in STEM fields to combat institutional discrimination in the education system and the corporate world.

Tolerating old, tired stereotypes should no longer fuel career choice. Both government and private sector communities should develop, expand, and fund mentoring programs that support young students in STEM fields, specifically women and young girls. This will only be achieved if critical changes to work cultures are being made to inspire more women in STEM fields and leadership roles. Corporate cultures should implement professional development programs, such as flexible work alternatives, leadership conferences, and other benefit programs to support women in STEM careers.

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

STEM jobs require further education and more formal training to operate advanced technology. Due to the nature of the course and training materials, there’s a significant lack of gender diversity. This further widens the gender gap in employment, specifically pay and performance, because of discrimination and a lack of peers or mentors.

STEM fields have a lack of diversity in people of color as well. Only 9% of STEM workers are Black, and 7% are Latino. Information systems that are being built by these careers lack the depth and breadth of diversity. Imagine artificial intelligence technology being built by only white males? The lack of women and women leaders in STEM fields has mitigated the power of innovation and limited creative new business ideas, products, and services.

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?

First and foremost, girls and women need encouragement to show up for STEM programs.

They should be encouraged at an early age to participate in STEM subjects, and curricula should be designed with girls and women learners in mind.

We also need to expand leadership roles for women in STEM fields to create role models for young women making educational and career choices.

Advocating for diversity in STEM education programs and in the workplace will create a more inclusive culture to help close the stem gender gap.

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?

Let’s focus on the “T” in STEM or STEAM, first. Whether you are an English, Math, psychology, or accounting major, you need to understand how technology will impact any job you secure in the future. Every English major doesn’t need to know how to program in Python or Java, but if you are researching an article and analyzing a lot of data to prove your point. Then you need to summarize your conclusions with a visual display of the data too. You need to be able to understand and simplify technology and data.

As we continue to build more innovative technology, the liberal arts majors will know how to interpret the technology and data. They will grow their careers into more executive leadership positions because they will understand technology through creative strategies.

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?

The 5 things I would implement to improve and reform our education system are:

1.) make 13th and 14th grade free,

2.) eliminate credit hours as the measurement for learning,

3.) reward good schools with more financial support for their students,

4.) cap the amount of student debt that graduate students can take, and

5.) overhauling the accreditation process for schools.

High school stops at grade 12, but many high schools, especially in inner cities, fail their students. Suppose community college had free tuition. There was no stigma with going to the 13th and 14th grades to get an associate degree and really learn Algebra and Calculus. In that case, we can advance more students into higher education. Under this model, a student can still spend 4 years at college. They can complete their bachelor’s degree in 2 years and have another 2 years to focus on a master’s degree.

Regardless, it does not matter how much time students spend in a classroom if they never prove mastery of the material. We need to eliminate credit hours as the measurement for learning. Research shows that students all learn at different speeds. The higher education system should be rewarding students who prove competency of the material and take on more classes. The school can then focus on providing resources for students that need more time and support to comprehend the course material.

Four-year schools should have skin in the game and take a lot of money from the taxpayers. Still, they are not held accountable for graduation rates or getting students jobs with competitive salaries to repay their debt. We should reward good schools that provide more financial support for their students before and after graduation. That additional support should come from the schools that are failing the students.

In addition, we need to cap the amount of student debt graduate students borrow. Right now, a student going to graduate school can borrow up to the cost of attendance. Most of the horror stories we hear about student loans come from the six-figure balances for grad students.

Lastly, the way schools are accredited to participate in the education system has not changed in decades. This antiquated process needs to be overhauled so schools can institute new majors and modify existing ones to keep pace with labor force changes.

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

“Don’t be greedy or stupid.”

I know this won’t land me in the quotable quotes database, but I have signed many deals in my career. You have a lot more leverage in some deals, and you can dictate terms at the expense of the other (i.e., the “greedy” part). Other times, you are negotiating a deal, and the folks around you are telling you what the answer is. You choose to ignore them (i.e., the “stupid” part).

When you fall into one of these categories, the deals seldom work out, and relationships and credibility are injured along the way.

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 recently read Bob Iger’s book, and I think I would like to share a meal with him. He transformed Disney into a global entertainment powerhouse. It is very hard to innovate, and it is even harder to do so in large organizations like Disney. He also negotiated with Steve Jobs to acquire Pixar, George Lucas to acquire Lucas Film (Star Wars), and Rupert Murdoch to acquire Fox. Big deals that would not have gotten done if he was greedy or stupid.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can find me on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/ruggieroken/

Ascent’s social media profiles:

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