High-Pressure Recruitment Tactics at For-Profits

A few weeks ago, I looked at some of the methods which for-profit universities use to get “leads” on potential students. Getting contact information on a possible new student is, however, just the first step. The next steps are to get in touch with the potential student and convince them to enroll. In today’s blog post, I’ll look at some of the tactics recruiters use to pressure students into signing up at for-profits. Much like with the lead generating companies, the methods are highly upsetting and unethical, and cast a shadow over the ethics of some of these companies more generally.

I’ll be basing this post on a thirty-two page collection of documents which were made public by Senator Tom Harkin’s office. Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, is the chair of the Senate’s HELP (Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions) Committee and has made reform of the for-profit industry a top priority. In February 2011, Harkin gave a speech on the Senate floor about the deceptive recruiting practices that some for-profits use (you can watch a video of the speech, which lasted about sixteen minutes, here, or read a transcript here). The documents I will be citing were posted to his website to go along with the speech, and you can read the full document on Harkin’s website here, posted to Scribd here, or you can read them at the end of this post.

These are primary sources – letters, manuals, and guides for recruiters with strategies for getting more students enrolled. Perhaps the most unsettling strategy, used by ITT and Kaplan, is to add to and take advantage of potential students’ fears and pains, and then offer a for-profit education as a solution. For example, ITT tells recruiters to “Poke the pain a bit and remind them (if applicable) who else is depending on them and their commitment to a better future.” They even have a “pain funnel” designed to determine if “the prospect [has] enough pain to qualify for the next step.” “Level 1 Pain” is created by asking questions like “What subjects did you feel least successful?” while “Level 2 Pain” features questions like “Do you feel that spending x amount of time at xxx college has held you back from where you want to be?” Kaplan University documents are even more direct, instructing recruiters that “IT IS ALL ABOUT UNCOVERING THEIR PAIN AND FEARS. ONCE THEY ARE REMINDED OF HOW BAD THINGS ARE, THIS WILL CREATE A SENSE OF URGENCY TO MAKE THIS CHANGE.” Vatterott University’s documents say that “Pain is the greater motivator in the short term.” This is nothing short of emotional manipulation.

The documents from Ashford University (a school owned Bridegpoint Education) shed light on how schools respond to (well-justified) concerns about the costs and quality of these schools. For example, if a potential student is worried about costs, the recruiter is instructed to tell them that Ashford is less expensive than other private, online schools. Of course, the better comparison would be to community colleges. I checked on Ashford’s website to see the costs – the Associate’s Degree programs cost more than $28,000, and Bachelor’s programs cost more than $52,000. On-campus programs can cost as much as $117,000. Of course, the recruiters do not mention this – instead, they make the costs seem distant, emphasizing that they will have up to ten years to pay back their loans, and that the loans will be deferred while they are in school.

If students are concerned about the quality of an Ashford education, recruiters emphasize the fact that Ashford is a “traditional 4-year campus with sports teams, dormitories.” That’s highly misleading – Ashford has about 78,000 students, of whom fewer than one thousand are on-campus. While there are sports teams, they aren’t exactly at the usual college level – the softball field, for example, is shared with a  local elementary school, and the football field is mostly for decoration, as the school has no football team. They emphasize that AU was “established in 1918,” which is, again, highly misleading – the school really only dates to 2005, when Bridgepoint Education bought the tiny Franciscan University of the Prairies and changed its name to “Ashford University.”When Bridgepoint bought the school, it had only 300 students (the Huffington Post had a great investigation into this story earlier this year).

These documents show that manipulating and misleading students is a matter of policy at these schools. Rather than chalk up mistakes to “bad apples” in the recruiting departments, encouraging recruiters to amplify students anxieties is, in fact, standard protocol – and in at least one case, meant to be a secret: the Ashford documents are marked “For internal use only.” Luckily, Senator Harkin and other lawmakers are investigating this issue and bringing these documents and practices to light. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, as they say, so if there are any other schools who have institutionalized these types of unethical, high-pressure recruiting tactics, I hope we find out about them, and I hope they receive plenty of attention. A combination of public knowledge about these schools and legislation that ends this kind of manipulation would go a long way towards helping students make better choices for their educations.

You can read the full documents uploaded by Senator Harkin’s office right here:

Follow me on twitter for more news from the for-profit college industry: @forprofitwatch

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