McGraw-Hill sells off education unit for $2.5B

McGraw-Hill (s MHP), the longtime education textbook publishing giant, announced Monday that it will sell its education unit to private equity firm Apollo Global Management for $2.5 billion.

The news wasn’t surprising as the company said in September 2011 that it planned to split its more profitable financial services division from its education arm. And earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and others reported that a deal with Apollo was in the works. According to McGraw-Hill, the deal is expected to close in late 2012 or early 2013.

As the rise of digital content disrupts the publishing business, McGraw-Hill Education has attempted to keep pace with new products like its adaptive learning platform LearnSmart and partnerships with digital distributors like Apple (s AAPL), as well as startups Kno, Benchprep and others. Despite its efforts, the company’s education unit has lagged behind its financial services division. In the last quarter, for example, revenue for the unit fell 11 percent to $836 million. In its quarterly report, the company said the growth in sales of digital products across all product lines and the migration to more subscription-based business models impacted revenue.

Wall Street responded favorably to the news – after the announcement of the sale, shares in McGraw-Hill climbed about 2.35 percent to $52.90. Once the deal is closed, McGraw-Hill will be renamed McGraw Hill Financial.

As Bloomberg notes, McGraw-Hill Education’s sale isn’t the first time private equity has dabbled in education. In 2007, London-based Apax Partners led a $7.75 billion purchase of Cengage Learning Inc. from Thompson Reuters Corp, the financial news outlet reported.

As we and others have reported, tablets and other digital devices, along with the growth in open content initiatives and other textbook creation tools, are dramatically changing the landscape for traditional textbook publishers.

This summer, in a conversation with reporters, Jay Chakrapani, vice president and general manager of digital at McGraw-Hill Higher Education, said that the company wants to be the “Netflix of education.”

Through its digital products, LearnSmart, especially, he said, the company gathers increasing data about its students, enabling them to personalize learning experiences much like Netflix personalizes recommendations over time. Going forward, it will be interesting to see if Apollo takes a similar view on the future of McGraw-Hill Education.