Unlocking Project-Based Learning with Tom Vander Ark


I recently had the chance to sit down for a chat with Tom Vander Ark. Tom is the CEO of Getting Smart, where he advises schools and foundations on how to accelerate innovations in learning that empower all people. He is also the author of numerous books, including “Getting Smart: How Digital Learning is Changing the World,” and “The Power of Place: Authentic Learning Through Place-Based Education." Previously, Tom served as Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. We discussed real-world learning and his “New Pathways” campaign, which is a road map for American schools with a very ambitious vision for the future of education. 

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Summary of the Conversation

Tom's organization, "Getting Smart," is leveraging technology and innovation to help students learn in new and different ways. They're launching a new campaign called New Pathways which is about helping educators understand the power of technology to help to increase high school graduation rates and improve college and career prospects. New Pathways delivers on its vision through work with secondary and post-secondary institutions to help them create modular systems that are customized to each student and take advantage of dual enrollment programs, which allow students to earn college credit while still in high school.

Getting Smart works to create pathways to college and careers for students starting as early as primary school. They also help schools through their learning partnership program with regional foundations in the EdTech sector that have experience implementing new learning strategies in school districts, including finding funding for those new initiatives.

Tom believes that having students think about future career prospects needs to be a daily part of every K-12 student's experience. He feels it's crucial that we view higher education in a new way, as lifelong learning and not just an experience that ends with spending 4 or 6 years getting a college degree. Tom says, "It's not just about getting a job; it's about having a career."

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Full Transcript

Ian Evenstar: Why don't you tell us a little bit about your background, how you went from being a superintendent to the executive director of education at the Gates Foundation to ultimately becoming the CEO of your company, Getting Smart?

Tom Vander Ark: I should probably go in the Wayback machine and tell your audience that I'm an engineer by original training, a mining engineer from Colorado School Mines, worked in the extractive industries for six years, have an advanced degree in energy finance from the University of Denver and taught at both Du and Regis in the business school for many years while I was a private sector executive in both technology and retail and then I had the opportunity to become a public school superintendent. I was one of the first business executives recruited to lead a school district. Washington State was one of the first to waive the traditional licensure. And invited a couple of very unprepared young people like me to attempt to be public school superintendents. I had the privilege of serving my community here as superintendent for five years and quickly realized that I was in some dimensions, the best-prepared superintendent in the country. I knew a lot about leading large organizations and developing thoughtful budgets and deploying new technology, but I really didn't know much at all about K-12 education. And I quickly found out that while the need to create a focused agenda and a positive culture is important in any organization, I learned that in education, the people, politics, and economics are very different than the private sector. But my experience as superintendent led to an early relationship with Bill and Melinda Gates. Early in my tenure, I helped develop a technology training program that we shared with all the principals across the state of Washington. And then I was able to help them stand up their foundation in 1999 and spent most of the first decade there leading education. Ian, it was a non-traditional path into philanthropy. I'm proud and pleased to have been able to serve as a public school superintendent but only did it long enough to know how challenging it is.

IE: It's fascinating. You don't hear every day of one going between the different spheres or think of them maybe as modalities within the landscape of education, going from the public education sector to, having worked within the private sector and working for industry and enterprise, to supporting a foundation, that's quite a blend of experience. And you've somehow managed to successfully transition in between each of those ecosystems or each of those modalities. How did you ultimately then land with the company Getting Smart now, I'm referring to it as a company, but maybe you refer to it more as an organization or an advisory board.

TV: We are a hybrid organization. We're both a company and a nonprofit. My wife and daughter founded the organization almost 15 years ago after I left the Gates Foundation. I led the XPRIZE Foundation for a few years and learned a lot about philanthropy. And then I helped launch the first EdTech Venture Fund. And while I was doing that, my wife launched Getting Smart, which supported initially the ed tech community with a focus on supporting education entrepreneurs. After about five years in venture investing, I joined my wife and daughter and for the last 10 years, we've been active in advising education innovators, whether they're school districts or colleges and universities, or ed-tech startups. And an important part of our work that compliments that is that we've stood up campaigns around emerging issues that attempt to help educators understand the path forward. So in both of our work advising and advocating, I've really tried to support that path forward in learning.

IE: So thinking about innovations in education and helping address some of the main challenges within higher ed, you have this New Pathways campaign. Tell us about that and how that seeks to both bring in or leverage innovations in education as, as well as the challenges that it currently addresses.

TV: As I got to know Bill Gates back in the '90s, one thing that I most appreciated about him is he said, "Tom I want to work on the hardest thing that we could possibly take on. I want to try something that no one else could or would take on." And for that reason, I invited him to take on the high school challenge. In America, we have about 25,000 high schools and most remain quite traditional in structure and focus. And when we started this work back in the '90s, our national graduation rate was about 66%. And we lied about it and we reported the number of seniors that graduated, but we never really tracked how many students made it through high school, much less through post-secondary. And I guess to this day I remain focused on that challenge of trying to make secondary education much better and try to dramatically increase the number of students prepared for post-secondary success. And so while we accomplished a lot at the Gates Foundation, we helped start about 1,200 new high schools that remain very good today and build a 50-state graduation rate compact. That with new and approved schools led to a dramatic increase in American graduation rates. About 66% closer to 90% today. There's a lot of work to do to help more kids enter a pathway, one that is purposeful, that leans into a student's strengths and interests, but it's also connected to the needs of their community. So a path that's purposeful and supported and efficient. Our campaign is really about helping secondary and post-secondary institutions create these purposeful, sequential, often accelerated experiences linked to opportunity.

IE: And how did you find this passion, this driving force along the way? Was it because of the initial design challenge that Bill gave you, Tom, or was there something else that was driving you earlier on?

TV: You reminded me of a story that I don't get to tell very often, but in my last year as superintendent, my daughter graduated. And we had just started the Gates Foundation. So I was sitting in the audience instead of sitting on the stage where I had been the prior five years. And as the scholars marched into the Tacoma Dome, I counted in the program how many students, their workers, they didn't seem like there were enough. And I only counted 400, and I knew that we had sent 600 students to that high school. And so sitting there on what should have been the happiest day of my life, I thought about what happened to the other 200 students that on my watch, didn't make it to graduation, and it was that experience as much as anything else. That is really a conviction in my life to try to help more young people reach a high school graduation and then initiate a meaningful, purposeful, and affordable post-secondary career link to opportunities. So in that respect, Ian, I think this work is really personal for me.

IE: I have this great vivid image of you sitting there and, as you say, what should have been your happiest moment, actually being the moment where you realize holy cow, my work isn't done. It's just actually just beginning.

TV: I'm sitting there, my wife's elbowing me, "What's the matter?" And I'm like I just did the mental math and there were 10,000 kids on my watch. Not well served by the schools. I was responsible to support and so it's that sense that we just have to do better in America at putting more kids, inviting more kids into creating or finding a meaningful path to contribution.

IE: I think the driving force the big reason why is clear in terms of the what New Pathways campaign does. This is what you read on your website. It says, I quote, "It's a campaign that is a roadmap for American schools. Where every learner, regardless of zip code, is on a pathway to productive citizenship, high-wage employment and economic mobility, and a purpose-driven life." Which is something we all deeply desire at the core. So that's what it is, now how do you implement this? Is it, on campus at these high schools? Are there other high schools that you're setting up? What's the way that, that you actually deliver on this vision and this mission that you have here?

TV: Really in two ways. One is an information campaign where we're describing new learning strategies and then, Secondly, in regional partnerships with a number of foundations we actually get to do work on the ground helping school districts support these ideas. On the former, on the advocacy front, we're really interested in a number of themes. One is unbundled learning. And by that, we mean particularly during the pandemic, just the number of learning options available to humans on the planet just really exploded. And we think in many cases those new opportunities can be put to better use. They can be more purposefully found and integrated into learning pathways. And so the second category is for us as new learning models, we wanna. Help take some of that unbundled learning and help schools and universities incorporate these new opportunities into new experiences and new learning journeys or pathways. And number three, for about 150 years, we've relied on a list of courses and grades as the primary signaling mechanism and that just no longer works. It is really insufficient to describe human capability. And so we think digital credentials offer a much richer opportunity to more comprehensively and accurately in a trustworthy way, describe a set of human capabilities. All of that has to be supported with a new set of guidance systems that help learners thoughtfully co-author experiences and journeys. And this co-authoring is increasingly gonna be the combination of an advisor and an algorithm. It'll be an advisor that walks alongside you in your secondary and post-secondary journey supported by intelligent tools that are not only smart about you and your needs, but also geo smart about the learning and contribution opportunities in your vicinity. And then the ecosystem is really systems and supports that make that possible. In K-12, it's a really interesting time in America where about a third of the states are launching these new direct-to-consumer funding models where families and learners have brand new opportunities to either take advantage of existing learning alternatives or create their own. And I think we'll see more and more of that in the post-secondary space as well. And so we're interested in, in, in helping to guide those new opportunities in a productive way. So those are a few of the themes of the campaign. And, one quick example of where and how we're trying to. Help enact new pathways on the ground is in Metro Kansas City, where we have the privilege to support about 85 school systems in both Kansas and Missouri with the support of the Kaufman Foundation and all 85 of those high schools in 35 systems, I should say. Are implementing real-world learning and they're creating new pathways that include internships and work-based learning and client-connected projects and college credit opportunities, as well as industry. Recognize credentials. So all of those high schools are building new pathways connected to opportunity, often accelerated pathways to and through college and to work. And so that's for us, a great example of a region that's building new pathways in real time.

IE: So new pathways, if I heard you correctly, it is looking to leverage the unbundling of learning and making that unbundling. Those opportunities are more purposeful. You're looking at creating or leveraging new opportunities, new learning journeys, or new pathways. I now see why you named it that way, and in some places, augmenting or maybe even replacing the grading system with digital credentialing, is that right? Yes. That's really great. It's a great program, a great format. I'm wondering if a college wanted to bring new pathways to their programs, what would be the steps that they would take?

TV: Gates Foundation helped to launch the early college movement 21 years ago now, and that resulted in about 300 of these early college high schools that blend high school in two years of college. 10 years ago, IBM and New York City built on that initiative with a model called P-Tech. And that takes an early college high school and adds high-tech work experience to it. And there are now about 300 P techs around the world. Texas happens to be the leader in both early college and tech. They quickly developed a supportive set of policies and now have more p techs and early colleges than the rest of the country combined. And they are launching a new initiative to double or triple the number of those dual enrollment institutions. And so that my first answer would be to look for ways to be actively engaged in the dual enrollment space. I'm happy to report that there are more than 500 post-secondary institutions involved in that space today. It is hard for one to step into that space. But we have seen productive examples of it. Metro College in Columbus is on the Ohio State campus and is a terrific partnership. UCSD in San Diego has a great early college on campus. Purdue University took a different approach and sponsored a Network of high schools called Purdue Polytechnic High School to build a more diverse enrollment base from Indianapolis. And they've had a beautiful partnership that includes, but isn't limited to dual enrollment. So that'd be the first answer, is to look for ways to get involved in dual enrollment, to create more accelerated and affordable pathways through post-secondary.

IE: Would these individuals reach out to you as an advisor to help implement that or source those opportunities?

TV: They certainly can. We'd love to see university officials partner with their local schools directly. Some states make this much more attractive than others. I would say there's about a third of the states have really good dual enrollment laws where the funding is attractive to both the sending high school and the receiving college and where there's good credit reciprocity so that a student's credit can travel across the state. And so this category of accelerated pathways is one where state law matters a lot cuz there's at least a third of the states that have terrible dual enrollment policies where students have to pay for college credit and where there's not very good credit reciprocity and so that in, in a few states, the first stop might not be your local high school. The first stop might be your state capital, where, encourage policymakers to make it easier to create accelerated pathways.

IE: Where does New Pathways need help?

TV: We're really interested in new learning models, and so we would love to learn from your audience about, Examples of new learning models that are really connecting young people to opportunity.
I'll give you a couple of examples. I'm really interested in rigorous client-connected project-based learning. It's easy to do project-based learning. It's hard to do it well. And I mentioned Purdue Polytechnic High School. It's probably the best in the country at client-connected projects, and so they have worked both with Purdue University and with about 50 local employers to identify problems of practice in those businesses and to frame them up and to invite young people to engage with those businesses and develop real-time solutions. But structuring those is really challenging. And then building a sequence of those as the primary backbone of high school instead of going from class to class on a 50-minute schedule, if you really build a sequence of community-connected projects and then build skill building around that, what you end up with is individualized schedules where every adult and every learner is on a unique schedule. So that's a new kind of structure that Purdue Polytechnic is piloting and so we'd love to learn about models like that, that connect students with work that matters. We love to learn about ways that high schools and colleges are working together in productive ways. One thing we may dive into further in our conversation is that we see in higher education the move to lifelong learning. And higher ed is increasingly viewed as instead of a four-year degree or whatever it is, a six-year degree a lifetime of learning, but often taken on in short chunks around specific credentials. And we're excited to see more and more of that happening where higher ed is becoming more modular, more learner-centered, and more linked to opportunity. And often credentialed or certificated in ways that might stack into degrees, but shorter chunks that are linked to specific contribution opportunities. And some of these can be entered while in high school. And so the potential for these blended institutions that are often earn-and-learn ladders where a student might be working and learning at the same time, sometimes they're the employer subsidizing that learning journey. We think those kinda learning models are really interesting. And so we'd love to hear from any of your listeners that are engaged in or know of interesting models that are engaging particularly young people in new and powerful ways. So new experiences, new structures, new business models behind them, new signaling systems, like credentials around them. We think all of those are really interesting and would love to help get the word out about the good work that's been done around the country.

IE: That's a great call to action. So those listening, you heard it here first. Reach out and please share what you're up to in terms of new learning models. I love this phrase, this catchphrase that you left us with. The earn-and-learn ladders that are out there. That's great. It's the first time I had heard that we've had some experience with Riipen, which touts to be the number one work-based learning platform that connects learners with employers and educators. Are you familiar with them? So they've we've done a handful of projects with them and then HubSpot, their educational partner program, has also been a great way to bring in some of these opportunities into class.

TV: They're terrific. And in K-12, there are great examples of work-based learning platforms that make it easier to find secure and manage work-based learning experiences.

IE: You mentioned that higher education can become or is becoming lifelong learning, taken in short chunks as credentials. That higher ed can be more modular, and more learning-centered. I see that as really hyper-personalization. So making degree tracks or the majors and minors personalized to the learner and to each learner at the individual level. What else would you include in the ideal picture of higher ed? What is your ideal picture of higher ed in addition to those attributes?

TV: Even college graduates should be employable. So I think career education and exploration from day one, as part of the orientation even before, as part of the enrollment I'm really great grateful to see this becoming a real priority at most college campuses today. And while I agree with my, my friends and colleagues in the liberal arts that in some respects the liberal arts are more important than ever. It is more important than ever that in including the liberal arts colleges, every student enrolled in a liberal arts program must be in a career development and career exploration pathway where they're thinking about. Their employment during college and after college. And liberal arts can and will be valuable if and only when there's a path to employment as part of that. So I would love to see more of that. And in K-12, by the way, we're trying to push career education all the way down to elementary school. W we think. That's starting even in the primary grades with a vocational identity, beginning to understand your own strengths and interests and how those match up with possible futures is a conversation that we can and should start early. But I think it has to be a daily part of every college student's experience.

IE: What would you say to the critic that says that the market factor, the market force around career job outcomes is too limiting or is too heavy-handed or in some ways impedes and gets in the way of education and exploration?

TV: I think the market had spoken on this issue. I think the current enrollment numbers make it really clear that Has just said no to expensive degrees that don't have good employment outcomes, and I don't think colleges will be open for long if they don't take the employment mandate seriously.

IE: That's a great answer. It is still a spectrum though, right? Like you can't go fully into the career. Side of the equation. Is that fair?

TV: I value the liberal arts and the knowledge and skills and dispositions that you develop in the liberal arts. But the vast majority of learners and families can no longer enter into liberal arts, absent a parallel track of Building a vocational identity, developing work-based learning experiences, and improving one's employability. I'll add to this whole discussion that the one thing that's new and different about career, identity development, and career exploration is the subject of entrepreneurship. This is becoming much more important and I would say to date that 99% of our. Career exploration and workforce development efforts have focused on getting a job. I think we need an equal emphasis on making a job and inviting learners to think about themselves as an employer, not just an employee. Because almost every young person is gonna lead some kind of a portfolio life where they are an employer in one aspect and an employee in another aspect where they're part of the gig economy while they're pursuing a side hustle while they're an employee. And so they'll be going back and forth in, in terms of emphasis of whether they're an entrepreneur or an employee, and even in the employment field, what is becoming more and more valued is the ability to spot an opportunity and to take initiative. This is what I so appreciate about the KEEN Network in higher education. It's 50 of the best engineering schools in the country that share a commitment to teaching an entrepreneurial mindset to engineers. And they teach opportunity spotting, solution designing, and impact delivery. And I think that's a beautiful way to. Incorporate an entrepreneurial mindset across the curriculum. And so in that sense, it's not thinking about engineering and career development as something separate. It is incorporating entrepreneurship into the way we think about and teach engineering.

IE: Again, you've left us, I think with a really good paradigm shift to reflect on, which is the process of emphasizing. Making a job, not just getting a job. I heard recently that, as uncomfortable as the great resignation has been for many employers, we haven't even reached the point at which there's gonna be the great, never even applied for a job reality for employers. So I think you're ahead of the curve on that idea. I still wrestle with the arts and culture as a way to still open up, yeah. Market opportunities and of course, on the supply side, how to meet maybe a demand that isn't there, that you can't necessarily manufacture.

TV: I appreciate that, and let me just say that I would love to see every secondary student and most post-secondary students, Experience success in the arts prior to graduation. When we think about new pathways, we really wanna think not about preparing students for what's next. We want them to experience success in the world of work, in college, in the arts, and in civics. And we want them to experience that success in high school. What I think we can do better in the way that we teach human expression, including but not limited to performing arts, is that we can teach expression and entrepreneurship together so that we can invite learners to think about how they can express ideas that are important to them and their community, and do it in a way that is scalable and sustainable. That might be via a social impact campaign. Or it might be versus through a business model. But it's inviting learners to think synthetically about not only the expression but the way that expression is delivered as a social change mechanism. And that really combines this idea of expression and entrepreneurship. And I think we can do a better job of teaching that in both secondary and post-secondary.

IE: Let's talk a little bit more about technology, especially as we're having this discussion and Open AI is continuing to increase its user base. And I think I read recently that now the plan is to scan every eyeball so that there's a crypto wallet attached to everyone's identity. How do you see technology impacting education here in the near future?

TV: That one's called Getting Smart, and that's actually where the name of our firm came from for the Hoover Institution. I'm trying to write a 10-page answer to this question right now. That is both the history of EdTech, whether it's had any benefit or not, and the future of EdTech, and trying to do that in 10 pages is. Is challenging. So let me say that as a tech optimist, I heard on a podcast this morning that the business sector that I was part of has been trying to deploy technology thoughtfully for 40 years, and in most cases is still looking for a real return on investment. That's certainly true in education. If I think back at the money that we've spent going one-to-one in attempting to personalize learning over the last 30 years. It's, if you look at traditional outcome measures, reading and math scores in particular, you can't see a return on investment. That's surprising to me. It's disheartening. I do think for many learners technology has helped improve other outcomes that we're less able to track and report on. But overall, it's hard to say that we've had anything close to satisfactory. Return on investment, and in some respects, the goalposts keep moving, which makes us an interesting exercise. In 2019, I and a number of other EdTech advocates were celebrating the fact that we had just, we had basically achieved one-to-one status in US education, particularly in secondary education, where there were. Enough devices for every kid and just about every secondary school in America was wired and then the pandemic hit and we realized, oh, there are 20 million Americans that don't have adequate wifi access at home. And now that everyone's learning at home, that's a big problem. So that's an example of setting new goals that it's not good enough just to have access at school, that you really do need access at home for anywhere, anytime. Learning in secondary, and post-secondary. There are many examples of really great technology-enhanced education. I, I had the opportunity to be one lead, in one of the first one-to-one school districts in the country, and my own daughters benefited tremendously from it. Really thoughtful teachers that did a beautiful job of integrating technology into their education in the nineties.
And the school districts that were at the school districts and universities that had a thoughtful blended learning, personalized learning program were very quickly able to flip. Into remote learning and operated at a very high level. That has continued to this day, but it definitely uncovered the fact that most K-12 systems and most universities were woefully under-prepared, and even those that had adopted platforms and primarily digital curriculum, For the most part, we're not ready for the shift.
So that was a disappointing answer. But I think spotty examples of success. But overall, I think we've wasted a lot of money and just haven't seen the results hoped for. One last quick thing on this. Ian, it's interesting to note that if you look at the last 30 years, We had three really interesting meta trends underway. We had standard space reform, which is the idea that if you can push top-down what kits should be known to be able to do and standardized testing and strong accountability, things would become better and more equitable. That didn't work. And we had ed tech and we had the explosion of new school development not just in charter schools, but also in public schools. Some in private schools, but. We saw 12, 13,000 new schools in the last couple of decades, and those three trends of new schools and new tech, and new standards sometimes collaborated in useful ways, but a lot of times were at odds and competed with each other. And I think to some extent, the standards movement.
Stamped and diverted productive uses of technology. So I think that's one of the reasons that things didn't work out as quite as well as we hoped.

IE: I think your answer is actually quite good, you said it was a disappointing answer, but I feel that it was actually a very valuable answer because it's one that I didn't expect. The thing that came to mind as you were describing the results of learning in math and science with regards to EdTech made me think of language and how we learn languages through duo lingo and these great apps. And so we're learning At a faster rate perhaps than when we were in school. Also, thinking about, practices like mental fitness or meditation, more on the personal development side. Are we learning faster in ed tech? So the non-standard things or skills and attributes that aren't maybe typically measured. Maybe there are some advances there. And then the other thing that springs to mind as you're describing this is, Maybe the return on investment, even though we're moving this proverbial goalpost further and further, maybe that is a sign that we're actually learning along with the technology. So the technology in a way, the example I like to give is during the pandemic when people did go home and they did have to figure out how to get on wifi, and they did have to learn how to deliver the same course to a student on their phone, that forced all of us. To learn in a way that prepares us for technology or maybe those career outcomes that are available today. So maybe just by virtue of technology's advancement or ed tech advancement. Maybe we're learning as a virtue of that, or as an outcome of that in a more, indirect way.

TV: I'm sure that's true. And we could point to some of the benefits of gaming that accelerated during the pandemic. I think something like two-thirds of Americans at least occasionally are playing video games and certainly most kids. Do. And there's some reason that scores of aggregate intelligence keep going up. And, if our aggregate use of ed tech in schools isn't what we hope, there's some reason that we seem to be getting smarter as a species. And I think there are some benefits to some of the mental agility that's exercised through increased gaming that happens online. I agree there, there's access to a lot of useful learning and learning adjacent activities online. We do have to admit that social media, I think, has largely gone off the rails as a productive activity. In 2010, I was a social media optimist, and I thought that we'd all level up and have a more civil discourse. Around a shared fact base. And almost the exact opposite happened as businesses chose advertising as the business model and focused on attention harvesting as their primary delivery strategy. I think we've created I think it's pretty clear that we've created a mental health crisis in America, that's gonna be hard to fix. And so while some of this outta school computer and phone usage has been productive, I think we're seeing dangerous levels of addiction with associated mental health challenges. And we see places like Montana trying to ban TikTok and that doesn't seem like the right answer, but we certainly haven't developed a useful solution to this issue. And on the subject of generative ai, we're just way out over our skis from the set of products that are way ahead of public dialogue about any of the legal or ethical moral, or mental health issues associated with their use.

IE: That could be a topic for our next discussion. This has been really fascinating, we could do a three-hour podcast if we wanted. But thank you for ending on that note. Is there anything else you wanna leave the listeners with?

TV: Another thing we didn't touch on is that we're launching an initiative next month to support new micro-schools. So we've raised a fund to help families and school operators develop new small schools around this new pathways idea of new learning models attached to opportunity in new ways. So that might be another interesting future conversation.

IE: Where can someone find out more about micro-schools and this new facet?

TV: Check out gettingsmart.com. We have a lot of micro school resources on the site and we'll be making an announcement and making some grant opportunities available to folks in the near future. We'd love to have many of those models, linked to higher education opportunities. We hope a number of those are accelerated pathways in some respects. And as we discussed earlier, we'd love to hear from folks that are working on new learning models in secondary or post-secondary education, and new ways to engage people in meaningful work linked to opportunity. Shoot me a note at Tom at getting smart, or you can find me on, I'm still on the Twitter machine for the time being. Reach out and I'd love to learn more about what your listeners are doing to innovate for equity.

IE: That sounds good. Tom, thank you for your time today. You've given us a lot to think about and a lot to follow up on.


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