Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Scam U

It's bad enough that for-profit universities have offered up near-useless degrees and sky-high prices, loading mounds of debt on young adults, and positioning them for future financial failure. But Kaplan University, one of the nation's largest providers of for-profit higher education, may have taken it one step further:
Managers at Kaplan--the highly profitable educational arm of the Washington Post Co.-- have for years pressured academic advisors to use this method to boost enrollment numbers, the former employees said, offering accounts consistent with dozens of complaints filed by former students with the Florida Attorney General's Office and reviewed by The Huffington Post.

Guerilla registration has been part of a concerted effort by the university to keep students enrolled as long as possible in order to harvest more of the federal financial aid dollars that make up nearly all of the company's higher education revenues, according to former Kaplan academic advisor Sheldon Cobbler, who described the practice in detail.

Most advisors had access to a company database that allowed them to view students' e-mail correspondence without their knowledge, said Cobbler, who worked at Kaplan's Fort Lauderdale, Fla., corporate office from 2007 through July of this year. The advisors routinely searched through students' e-mails to look up their user names and passwords for Kaplan's enrollment system, and then they used that information to sign in using multiple student identities, enrolling them in classes they never intended to join, he said.

"The company didn't want students to withdraw," Cobbler said. "They wanted them to stay in class by any means."
Normally this sort of malfeasance on the part of a business or businesses would generate a fair amount of attention in the straight media - along with a suitable amount of tut-tutting by politicians - followed by a reasonable effort to correct the problem through regulation and better oversight....of which the last part was actually progressing with the Education Department's proposal of a 'gainful employment' rule:
The rule would establish metrics for assessing graduates' ability to repay their student loans as a way of judging whether an academic program is truly fulfilling its mandate: preparing graduates for "gainful employment." [...]

Education Department officials say the new rule would disqualify 5 percent of programs from receiving federal student aid money, and 55 percent would face limits on growth and mandates to warn students about the risks of excessive borrowing.
But once corporate profit margins are threatened...well, it's not hard to imagine what happens next:
For-profit colleges have increased their lobbying against proposed Education Department rules to cut off federal financial aid to programs whose students take on too much debt for training that provides little likelihood of leading to a well-paying job.

In addition to making personal visits to Capitol Hill, executives at the colleges have provided employees with “personalized” letters to send to Washington and urged students to speak out against the proposals.[...]

Last week, John Sperling, the founder of the nation’s largest for-profit college, the University of Phoenix, e-mailed every member of Congress, seeking help opposing the regulations, and attached a sample letter to be sent to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, asking him to withdraw them.

Donald Graham, the chairman and chief executive of The Washington Post Company, which gets most of its revenue from its Kaplan education business, visited Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, whose Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is holding hearings on the for-profit education industry.[...]

Many for-profit colleges have urged students, professors and administrators to send in criticisms of the proposals.

The Education Management Corporation, the second-largest for-profit company, hired DCI Group, a public relations firm, to contact its employees for information that would be used to create a personalized letter, which would then be delivered back to the employee for signature, along with a stamped, addressed envelope.
During periods of high unemployment like the one we are in now, the phrase 'structural unemployment' is thrown around, placing the blame on a mismatch of workers and their skill sets. I don't believe this is true, as  the issue with higher unemployment has been lack of demand for goods and services and the ability of companies to maintain profit levels with current headcounts...even so, when it comes to the fulfillment of American ideals like social mobility, maintaining an edge in the arts and sciences, and earning a true living wage, the accessibility, affordability, and efficacy of a post high-school education is crucial. These for-profit companies - who have been ripping off those who only want to better themselves in order to get a piece of that almighty American Dream - are placing a higher priority on protecting their profitability than on whether or not they are serving their students' interests.

That's one point in the whole public-versus-privatized education debate that I don't hear often: that publicly-run schools and universities are more free to promote a good education than their for-profit counterparts.

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