Thursday, August 27, 2009

Stanley Kaplan's Legacy

Stanley Kaplan died recently, the entrepreneur behind the Kaplan test preparation company. The link above takes the reader to a lengthy obituary in the New York Times from August 25. Kaplan was born in Brooklyn, and continued to live in the New York area to the end of his life, with homes in Manhattan and Boca Raton. He was a philanthropist to several large New York institutions, with named buildings at the NYU Medical Center and Lincoln Center for Performing Arts. In fact, his business began in his parents' home in Brooklyn, and grew out of his tutoring for the New York Regents' exams.

The Chronicle of Higher Education ran an interesting article (subscription needed, available in print at Chronicle, Aug. 27, 2009, p. ), analyzing "The Legacy of a Test-Prep Entrepreneur." According to both the N.Y. Times and the Chronicle articles, Kaplan got into test preparation because he had been denied entrance to medical school, because he was Jewish and because he graduated from a public university, CUNY. He wanted to democratize entrance to colleges and professional schools, based on merit rather than family ties.

I had not thought of the test-prep folks as providing equal access to education. Instead, I considered them part of the cycle that created the overwhelming anxiety afflicting students as they prepare for these tests. I considered that the test-prep folks benefited from the anxiety and so feed into it, with ads everywhere. At least, at the beginning, it appears that the anxiety was there before the test-prep folks even sprang up in response to it. This is kind of nice to know. It was interesting to read about the battle between the College Board and Mr. Kaplan, over whether test prep actually improves scores. I took my tests so long ago, that I remember the College Board asserting that test prep has no effect -- and believing them. It turns out Mr. Kaplan was right! And he persuaded the Federal Trade Commission, too. Serves me right for believing the College Board!

The Chronicle article also ties the growth of for-profit education businesses generally to Mr. Kaplan's pioneering company. They see the development, not only of other test-prep companies, but also of successful for-profit universities, such as Phoenix University, of course-management software companies like Blackboard, of distance learning turnkey companies, and of student coaching companies, all flowing from the crack in the non-profit facade of higher education made by Stanley H. Kaplan. Undoubtedly, they should include the companies that have cropped up supplying academic libraries as well, with automation systems, databases, and increasingly expensive publications and subscriptions. Once upon a time, nobody viewed universities or colleges as lucrative places to do business. How quaint we were!

The photo of Stanley H. Kaplan is from the New York Times, which credits Kaplan, Inc.

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