For-profit colleges slow in response to prospective students

Some schools respond to prospective student eMails in minutes.

For an industry known for its aggressive student recruitment techniques, many private, for-profit colleges take as long as 12 hours to return a prospective student’s phone call—and two days to respond to eMail inquiries from potential students.

Four in 10 for-profit schools don’t respond to student phone calls within a day, and seven in 10 schools have a same-day eMail response, according to a white paper released this week by Leads360, a California-based company that sells enrollment management technology.

In the survey of 28 for-profit colleges—including well-known schools like Grand Canyon University (GCU) and American Public University (APU)—“none showed consistent across-the-board success that would maximize their chances of enrolling the highest number of qualified prospects,” the white paper says.

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“In addition, several schools showed a complete disregard for the value of a consistent, efficient approach to converting inquiries into enrolled students,” the white paper said.

The white paper results might be surprising to higher education officials who have followed the consistent criticism of for-profit college recruitment practices, as detailed in a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report last year.

For-profit schools have developed a reputation for high-pressure approaches and questionable claims while registering students considering a return to college.

The Leads360 research, however, showed that while some for-profits respond to prospective students’ phone calls within 10 hours, others—such as Keiser University and Rasmussen College—wait more than two days to respond.

Ashford University, an Iowa-based institution that drew scrutiny for having one of the nation’s highest withdrawal rates in a 2011 U.S. Senate report on higher education, took almost two weeks on average to call prospective students who had contacted the university.

“Many institutions are leaving the door wide open by ignoring the importance of a responsive phone and eMail contact strategy,” the white paper said.

Everest College had the most rapid average phone response, getting back to students in eight hours.

GCU set the pace for eMail responses to prospective students, sending messages within two minutes of the first inquiry. APU also took just minutes to eMail prospective students who had gone to the school’s website and sent an eMail.

The Leads360 research encourages for-profit college recruiters to find the middle ground between a lax recruitment strategy and an aggressive approach that might drive away potential students.

Conversion rates, meaning the percentage of prospective students enrolled in classes, are maximized when recruiters send between two and four eMails—a window achieved by only one-fourth of colleges included in the study.

Six to eight phone calls were optimum for college recruitment, according to the research. Only 23 percent of schools hit this target, and one school—WyoTech—made an average of 82 phone calls to prospective students before giving up.

“[T]hese schools may be throwing away any advantages gained through responsiveness, by attempting contact in such an aggressive manner. … It’s easy to rationalize the idea of trying as many contact attempts as necessary to reach the prospect, interpreting calling and eMailing until contact as ‘plucky persistence,’” the white paper said. “At the same time, it’s also easy to initiate only a few calls and emails under the belief that it frees up time for recruiters to focus on other prospects. Unfortunately for these schools, research has demonstrated neither of these approaches is very effective.”

Recruitment at for-profit colleges has drawn national attention in recent years as the industry has seen rapid growth and become the target of federal regulators who pushed for “gainful employment” rules instituted last year by the U.S. Department of Education (ED).

Investigators from the GAO posed as college students and found that four out of 15 institutions they examined “encouraged fraudulent practices” to secure federal student loans, and representatives from all 15 colleges “made deceptive or otherwise questionable statements” to the undercover prospective students, according to a report published on the GAO’s web site.

ED statistics show that these schools’ aggressive and misleading recruiting practices have helped institutions bring in hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars in federally-subsidized student aid, including Pell Grants.

The University of Phoenix, with more than 200 locations and 476,000 students nationwide, took in slightly more than $1 billion in Pell Grants during the 2009-10 school year, according to ED statistics. Kaplan University, a school with 66,000 students, received $211 million in Pell Grants, and DeVry received $207 million. Ashford University took in $162 million in Pell Grants last academic year.

Four of the GAO investigators who went undercover and applied to for-profit schools were encouraged by college personnel “to falsify their financial aid forms to qualify for federal aid,” according to the report.

In one case, a college recruiter encouraged the undercover applicant to hide $250,000 in savings so he would be eligible for federal student aid.

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