Although most politicians and entrepreneurs subscribe to the view that education is one of the most crucial columns on which society rests, very few have devoted themselves with practical enthusiasm to the subject. How can society provide the best education, for the largest number of people, in an affordable manner, which doesn’t leave students impossibly indebted for the rest of their lives?
Successful entrepreneur and philanthropist William Erbey, who founded six multibillion-dollar public companies, two of which were listed in Fortune magazine as the 8th and 26th fastest growing companies in 2014, retired in early 2015. To some, retirement means no more work; perhaps relaxing on a beach, or on a golf course, or on a world cruise. Nothing could be further from the truth for Bill Erbey.
If anything, Erbey’s areas of expertise have only increased over the last five years, switching to Angel investing in the tech space; internet streaming, electric motor control system and medical devices.
But it’s his philanthropic enterprise in the realm of education, which has recently brought him to the fore. However much Bill Erbey is worth (according to Fortune magazine in December 2014 it was $1.8 billion), he and his wife Elaine have donated more than 90% of their net worth to institutions of higher learning.
The couple fundamentally believe that education is the primary driver to enhancing peoples’ standard of living. They believe that with the cost of a college education rising faster than salaries, student debt is becoming untenable. In turn, it’s forcing a huge proportion of the middle class population out of the college education sector completely.
In a recent interview Erbey was asked what he would do to fix the current educational crisis, where America’s education system was becoming accessible to smaller and smaller segments of the population.
“It can only get worse. The population of college-aged individuals will begin to decline over the next several years, placing an even greater strain on the high fixed cost budgets of colleges and universities. I can think of a number of potential solutions. That’s why I invested in Scholarly”.
Bill’s wife Elaine Erbey is equally passionate about education. Elaine holds a BSC from Boston University and a Master’s from Rutgers University and strongly believes that better technological solutions to disseminate high quality education will create “a substantial positive impact globally”.
Together Elaine and Bill founded Scholarly, which seamlessly facilitates the distribution of knowledge from the best teachers and colleges, to students and working professionals. “We help students locate the right colleges and courses to pursue their aspirations, utilising broadcasting capability to deliver live online education”. The couple agree with Benjamin Franklin, who wrote that ‘a better education leads to a better life’.
Erbey says American institutions of higher learning are a national treasure and sought after all around the world. Scholarly has developed outreach programs to match international students with colleges and universities, both for on-campus as well as live virtual classrooms. “We are utilizing System73, where students can interact real-time with their professors and fellow students around the world. Not only will this enhance revenue, but in certain circumstances it will enable colleges and universities to deliver higher quality education at a lower cost”.
International students could fill empty classroom seats and pay full tuition fees, generating the much-needed revenue to defray the costs of a college education for the entire student body. “In the USA, colleges and universities on average collect less than 50% of their tuition fees”, notes Bill Erbey.
In an insightful interview on the philosophy behind Scholarly, Erbey said; “My wife and I are highly committed to education. You can improve the world by getting people better educated, which is a challenge. I’m not sure our education system has kept up with the explosion of information in the world and data. The technology which continues to come out will eviscerate the middle level jobs. They are just going away. That means we need people to be well-educated, to think of new things and create new value”.
He points to the fact that this is probably the first time in our history where education hasn’t kept up with prosperity. Today, he says, the education levels we need are lagging behind significantly. Erbey points out that internet education is going to be the way of the future. “What we need is to use our Rockstar professors, who are brilliant at teaching the subject, but have them teach tens of thousands of students over the internet. That way you can get the best professors out there who will really get the students enthused about the subject matter.”
“Education today has not changed its basic business model since the beginning of time. You bundle the kids up, send them to the scholar and they sit there for a while and learn. Looking at it from an entrepreneurial point of view”, Erbey continues “higher education is pretty much like a brick and mortar retail store. It’s the last bastion where physical presence is absolutely required to sell the product”. Bill emphasises that he’s not saying there isn’t any real value in having young adults being able to go away to school. “It’s a maturation process where they sit there, in a protected environment, and they get to socialise with other young adults”.
But the Erbeys believe that this might shift around into a model where we have just one or two years on-campus, and the remaining time might be spent online. He highlights the fact that our current system is very expensive. “You get the kids, you bundle them up and you send them to the Hilton Hotel for four or more years”, he says “and it costs a lot of money, and some of them will never get rid of the debt”.
Bill Erbey’s significant investment in Scholarly proves that he has put his money where his mouth is. And judging by its success thus far, other people in the sector are sitting up and taking note.