Students claim they were misled by Kaplan University advisors.

Members of Congress likely won’t be swayed by the latest round of damaging personal accounts from former Kaplan University students released last week, but prospective students might exercise a bit more caution while researching online college offerings, industry experts said.

Change.org, a nonprofit organization specializing in web-based petitions, is publishing a series of personal stories from former students at Kaplan – one of the nation’s largest online institutions – who claim they were misled by the university and saddled with thousands in student loan debt.

The Change.org accounts are the latest in a string of charges claiming the fast-growing for-profit college industry has used unseemly recruiting practices and student loan tactics that lead students to a job that doesn’t pay enough to afford massive loan repayments.

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Visitors to Change.org can sign a petition urging The Washington Post Co. – which owns Kaplan – to “stop cashing in on low-income students.” More than 46,800 people had signed the online petition as of press time.

As the Obama administration makes its case for “gainful employment” regulations that would require for-profit online programs to meet benchmarks before they receive federal funding, education analysts said campaigns like the one pushed by Change.org wouldn’t impact  Republicans’ and Democrats’ stances on new regulations for for-profit schools.

“I don’t think these stories are anything new from Washington’s perspective,” said Andrew Magda, senior analyst for Eduventures, a higher-education consulting service based in Boston. “But this kind of report could increase coverage that will make prospective students weigh schools a little bit differently. … Stories like this may be seen by students and cause them to hesitate” before signing up for classes at major online programs like Kaplan, the University of Phoenix, and Strayer University.

Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), said that while Change.org’s stories wouldn’t serve as a counter to the for-profit industry’s Congressional lobbying power, the report could be a red flag to prospective Kaplan students doing a cursory Google search.

“Reports like this make [the for-profit college sector] look like consumer fraud as a business model … or consumer fraud on steroids because of public trading,” he said. “But these reports matter because the public becomes aware of how for-profits operate. And the only thing that will work against them is public embarrassment and scrutiny.”

The Kaplan student stories join a list of public charges made against the largest for-profit colleges, including a 2010 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that uncovered “deceptive or otherwise questionable statements” used by recruiters at 15 for-profit schools.

The GAO report has since been amended by the agency after criticism from Republicans and conservative think tanks and media outlets.

Still, Nassirian said, the myriad accusations lodged against Kaplan and other for-profits could impact enrollment at those institutions.

“The odds of [prospective students] being a little better informed is definitely higher,” Nassirian said. “And I hope they would be savvy enough to do a little research first to see that there’s evidence mounting that overselling and under-delivering has become the norm in [for-profit college] education.”

A spokesperson for Kaplan University did not respond to an eMail from eCampus News requesting comment on the Change.org campaign.

‘Kaplan has ruined me’

Among the disgruntled former Kaplan students included in the Change.org report was Shannon Croteau, a mother of three from New Hampshire, who took Kaplan courses in paralegal studies from July 2008 to February 2010.

A Kaplan admissions officer told her that federal loans would cover her paralegal education, Croteau said in her Change.org account. With only 11 classes to go before graduation, Croteau was told her federal loan had run out and she’d have to pay the rest of her tuition in cash or with a high-interest loan from the university.

Suspicious of the Kaplan admissions officer, Croteau conducted online research that revealed paralegal programs weren’t regulated in New Hampshire. She also found Kaplan had not been accredited by the American Bar Association.

“Kaplan has ruined me,” Croteau said in her Change.org account. “I am now $30,000 in debt from Kaplan, with no way to pay my loans back.”

John McMillan, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., resident who attend Kaplan classes for a year and a half, said in the Change.org report that while taking nutrition science courses, he discovered that the program was not accredited. That meant he could become a nutritionist, not become a Registered Dietician, as he had hoped.

In the months following an eMail saying Kaplan tuition would rise from $353 to $371 per credit hour, McMillan said the university sent a series of eMails warning him of a mounting past due balance.

Phone calls and eMails from Kaplan employees continued, McMillan said, until he was withdrawn from the university for nonpayment. The university claims McMillan owes more than $2,200 for his nutrition science classes.

“So now I am left out of school, with no degree, no job opportunity in this field, and almost $30,000 of student loan debt,” McMillan said. “I am truly in a much worse financial position than I was before I enrolled at Kaplan University, a position with no apparent solution. I believe Kaplan’s practices are unethical, and likely illegal, and action needs to be taken to make restitution to us students, the victims.”


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