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Peter Cohen

Peter Cohen, incoming UOPX president

University of Phoenix welcomes new president

University of Phoenix has a remarkable history of supporting and empowering those who are driven to constantly explore new fields and new ways to make a difference in the lives of others. The University’s eighth president, Peter Cohen, is one of the newest examples of that tradition – and his arrival in May of this year marks the most significant step yet in a career defined by a relentless passion for improving how students experience, and benefit from, every aspect of education.

While Cohen does not come to the University from a previous job in academia, he does have the right qualification to lead a faculty that is particularly proficient in the fields taught. That’s because he is an expert in education, having spent the past two decades distinguishing himself as a leader in innovation at learning-science organizations such as Sylvan Learning, Pearson, and most recently McGraw-Hill Education. The experience and perspective he gained in these roles is a huge part of why the opportunity to lead the University felt so important to him, Cohen says.

“Throughout my career, the most significant constant I’ve found in the education sector, ironically, has been change,” says Cohen. “The classroom has changed, the economy and the role that education plays in it have evolved, and students’ educational needs and expectations have grown and become more sophisticated. The only way to address these changes effectively is through a continuous commitment to innovation. I have strived to help create a culture of innovation everywhere I’ve worked, but here at University of Phoenix, it’s baked into everything we do – and it has been since the University’s founding.”

The chance to lead an institution that has made educational innovation central to its mission of serving working adults didn’t just feel exciting, he says – it felt like an essential responsibility he had to take on.

Cohen is quick to note that his tenure begins at a time of tremendous uncertainty and doubt across the entire higher education landscape, though he relishes the opportunity to wade into the fray and make a difference, as there has never been a period with more potential to harness the growing body of knowledge defining how adults learn and how teaching can become more effective.

He has also proven adept at translating his extensive experience in the learning-science field to his new role. Cohen’s penchant for rapidly consuming news and analysis on the sector comes into focus as he rattles off statistics and lays out the myriad challenges facing universities and colleges today.

“We’ve reached a pivotal moment here in America. There’s a genuine crisis of confidence amongst the public about higher education,” Cohen says. “People are questioning whether a college degree still has the value it’s long been touted as having, and whether college really prepares students for success in their careers.

“There was a New America survey earlier this year where only one in four respondents said they believe our higher education system is working as well as it should be in this country. Meawhile, 58 percent said that colleges put their own interests over those of their students. That’s shocking. That’s unsustainable.”

Cohen cites other issues that educators will be forced to adapt to, including declining national site-based enrollment numbers and a rise in the nontraditional student population that he says most schools are ill-prepared to support. But it’s the decline in public trust in higher education that he returns to again and again. What could explain this state of affairs?

The list of potential factors is far too long to speculate about productively here, Cohen argues, though he is candid enough to identify a few causes. Higher education leaders who obsess over boosting their school’s position on widely-read – but ultimately flawed – college ranking systems are one sore spot; people who insist that university traditions and models that were developed hundreds of years ago never need to be reexamined are another.

How should we respond to these concerns? On that, he has a clearer answer.

“In the mad dash to pursue some sort of ‘elite’ designation at so many of our nation’s universities, we’ve ended up pushing the dream of a degree out of reach for many. We’ve forgotten that higher education’s greatest legacy is its power as an equalizer in our society,” says Cohen.

“Over the course of our nation’s history, we’ve worked to make education more and more accessible, and in turn it has given millions of Americans the knowledge, competencies and skills to improve themselves and their lives, while helping us build the greatest economy the world has ever seen. This mission is where we need a renewed focus.”

The bottom line, he says, is the importance of restoring and enhancing college value, both in reality and in the perception of students. He calls it one the country’s most pressing educational challenges, and plans to address it by redoubling efforts to improve how the University serves working adult and nontraditional students.

“These individuals are the bedrock of our economy. They work incredibly hard to provide for themselves and their families, and so many of them are hungry to improve themselves while constantly looking for new ways to gain skills and contribute even more in the workplace,” he says, reflecting in particular on the many University of Phoenix students and alumni he has met as he’s visited campuses across the country. “When they choose to invest in higher education, they’re making a remarkably important and consequential decision, and at University of Phoenix, we will never stop improving on the value of that investment.”

Cohen points to working-adult students, and their determination to always keep themselves and their skills on the cutting edge of career success, as the very example that schools should look to in thinking about their own operations. Leaders have to mirror this approach in improving everything they offer, or risk failing to deliver on their promise to students.

“The student experience and student outcomes will always be the top priorities at University of Phoenix. We’re going to consistently refine our curriculum to deliver engaging, effective and efficient instruction,” he says.

“We will continue to innovate in our online, in-classroom and blended learning modalities to ensure that we offer the most flexible options possible for any working adult in this country who wants to pursue higher education but worries they can’t make it fit their life. And we will absolutely set the standard for providing career development opportunities through next-generation learning tools, the use of data analytics for improved effectiveness, industry partnerships to maintain career relevance, and the power of our phenomenal one-million strong alumni network.”

Some leaders in higher education may be full of uncertainty as they wonder how to forge ahead, but Cohen brims with confidence and enthusiasm as he details how the University is preparing to meet the future.

Asked if his outlook is tempered by any major concerns, Cohen simply responds, “I grew up here in Arizona, and right now, my biggest worry is just whether or not my body is ever going to completely readjust to the Phoenix summer heat.”

Only time will tell on that one.