Earlier this summer, Josh Keller wrote a story for the Chronicle of Higher Education about the tricks that some for-profit schools use when advertising online. He looked at two websites in particular, collegesurfing.com and EducationStart.org, both of which promise to help prospective students “find the school that’s right for you.” In actuality, the only schools that students learn about are for-profits, who are paying for the leads these sites generate. In the Chronicle story, for example, the director of marketing for University of Arkansas at Fort Smith went to collegesurfing.com and filled out the form asking for information about his own school. He didn’t get any – but he was contacted by an Argosy University recruiter just twenty minutes later.
I was intrigued by the story and wondered just how dishonest these websites are. What do they promise? What do they actually deliver? And most importantly, would a reasonable user be tricked or deceived by them? I wrote very briefly about this on my Twitter feed at the time, but it’s a complicated story that deserves a fuller explanation. There have also been some interesting new developments since then, which I want to talk about in Part II of this post.
Education Start is owned by Vantage Media, a company which, according to its website, “specializes in delivering qualified customers to leading brands in the Education, Insurance and Moving verticals on a pay-for-performance basis.” Right off the bat, the three industries that they specialize in should be a clue that this is not exactly a company that is an expert in higher ed (not to mention their excessive corporate jargon and their egregious lack of a serial comma in “Education, Insurance and Moving”).
The website promises that Education Start has the experience needed to “drive your school’s enrollment” and that it is “at the forefront of the rapidly evolving student recruitment environment.” So, The company doesn’t exist to help students find the right school, whatever it may be; it exists to generate leads for for-profit schools.
How does this play out for a user on Education Start? Well, for one thing, it looks like it will help you find information on the schools you are interested in. A map of the US is prominently featured on the homepage, and a student can click on each state to find a list of schools in that state (I encourage you to visit the site and try all of this out for yourself). For example, I decided to test out the site by pretending I was a prospective student interested in Harvard. So, I click Massachusetts, and get a list of schools (including no fewer than six “Blaine The Beauty Career Schools” around the state). But, Harvard is there on the list, so I click it. True, there is some kind of contact information on the page – namely, the school’s street address. No phone number, no e-mail address, no website. If I wanted to use this information to contact the school, my only choice would be to send a good old fashioned letter.
Luckily, Education Start tells me I can “request information from Harvard University,” so I fill out the form below (using a Washington, DC home address), and click “Next Step.” One or two more questions about my interests, current level of education, and school preference (online or campus), and we’re done–Education Start has, miraculously, found a school that matches my interests! It’s Strayer University-Washington, and it’s right in my area. What happened to Harvard? I never said anything about wanting information from Strayer. I didn’t even say I wanted information about schools in my area–I clicked “Massachusetts,” after all.
I click “No Thanks, show me the next school,” but my next school isn’t Harvard either. It’s “Seneca College of Applied Arts & Technology–Toronto.” The next school: Western International University. I click “Next” a third time and get: “Thank you! Your information has been submitted. You will be contacted shortly by the school you selected.” I don’t even know which one of those they think I selected.
So that’s how the game is played–at no point did I get any more contact information for Harvard than their street address, and as far as I know my information was not sent to Harvard’s admissions office. A complete scam, through and through. Trick students into thinking they will get useful information about the colleges they are interested in, then give their information to for-profit recruiters.
I invite you to try it yourself (delete your web browser’s cookies if you do it more than once) and leave a comment with the results.
Next week, I’ll talk about a new development with Education Start and talk about reforms that the industry can make to avoid this sort of deception.
Follow me on twitter for more news from the for-profit college industry: @forprofitwatch