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For-profit colleges’ success ignored

I have spent decades at the top of two businesses that were juxtaposed on your front page last week: journalism and for-profit education. I had the honor of being publisher of The Washington Post for more than 20 years and the CEO of the company that owned it for 22. And I now have the equal honor of being CEO of the company that owns Kaplan University, which is one of the many colleges mentioned in your series.

Reading your series has made me sad indeed for one of my two professions.

Every journalist knows that he or she is supposed to report all sides of a story. In this case the reporter wrote an account of his own work — How the Higher Ed Hustle was reported. Every word is devoted to his efforts to learn what critics of the industry had to say. If he lifted a finger to learn whether any for-profit colleges in fact do a good job educating their students, he forgot to say so.

In other words, reporting on a story that has more than one side, the Herald’s reporter wanted to know only one. Every word of his series reeks of this. Every charge — from plaintiffs’ attorneys, former employees who were fired (though the Herald’s readers were not permitted to know they were discharged) and lifelong critics of the industry — is treated reverently. The few scraps of evidence of another side are treated contemptuously. If a politician doesn’t agree with the critics of the industry, it must be because he or she has received a microscopic percentage of his or her campaign contributions from those connected to us. (For the record, neither I nor Kaplan has ever contributed to a Florida politician).

So help me: “Not all students at for-profit colleges have a bad experience” is the start of the first quasi-positive paragraph in the first article — and it appears in the 27th paragraph of a story that begins with a stripper recruiting students to a long-defunct college and goes on to other horror stories. And after that short, lonely paragraph, the horror stories resume. One story (among nine!) about two students who experienced some success at for-profits is presented under the headline Industry Touts Success Stories.

When he contacted Kaplan for comment on some of the material he mentioned in his articles, the reporter said he had been working on the series since July.

The call came in February.

He worked for more than half a year on a story about colleges before he actually called the colleges.

Is there another side to the story? Well …

There are 2 million students attending for-profit colleges. Does the editor of the Miami Herald think that all were tricked or deluded into enrolling? Isn’t it likelier that most were well aware of their alternatives and made what they considered the best choice for them? Isn’t yours (as the Miami-Dade County Teacher of the Year says in the 13th paragraph of one of the articles) a snob’s position — that poor students cannot understand their choices as well as you can?

In fact, they do.

I cannot speak for all the colleges your reporter writes about (though I do not believe a word he writes). Kaplan University is a decent place trying to offer a good education to its students and thereby improve their lives. When we fail (and your reporter points to one student who is disappointed with her education), they and I are bitterly sorry. But it is fair to ask: Is that student typical? How many are disappointed and how many benefit?

Over the last few years, Kaplan University — the same place referred to multiple times in your stories — surveyed all those who have graduated from the school. Not all replied, of course, but more than 17,000 did. This is not a scientific random sample; it’s possible it was disposed toward those who liked the place. But 17,000 people responding to a survey isn’t casual evidence, either. Here is what the most recently surveyed students had to say:

▪ 88.6 percent agreed or strongly agreed with, “Overall I am satisfied with my experience at Kaplan University.”

▪ 84.6 percent said, “I would recommend Kaplan University to others.”

▪ 86.2 percent agreed or strongly agreed with, “The education I received is relevant to my current goals.”

In each case, those who entered “strongly disagree” were between 1 percent and 4 percent.

I don’t know all the people who work at Kaplan University, but I know a lot of them. And for my whole working life I have known great newspaper people. Kaplan’s people, like the Herald’s, came to work there because they felt a sense of mission and a desire to serve others — in your case readers, in ours a particular group of students. (Perhaps because of that sense of mission, Kaplan was just named one of Forbes Magazine’s 100 Best Employers for 2015). I have taught at Kaplan University myself off and on for four years.

The university is something of a Florida success story. It grew (and our company lost many millions of dollars while it was doing so) by satisfying the needs of students who had few or no options elsewhere. Our average student is 33, has a job and a family. It is hard going to a campus if you have a job and a family; online education wasn’t created by for-profits, but the industry popularized it (and was heavily criticized for that, too, before every college in America joined us in offering online courses).

Our students are almost uniformly low-income. They go back to college (many have at least a few credits) because life has taught them they must. Like every high-school principal in Miami-Dade County, Kaplan’s people know that a college degree leads to a much greater chance of success in life.

Reader: The people at Kaplan University — the teachers, the counselors and the administrators — are as dedicated to the success of our students as the other educators you know. Schools that primarily serve low-income students, and we are one, have their challenges. Yes, our students graduate with debt (low-income students must borrow to attend college, and KU’s adult students almost never have parents paying their tuition); many do not graduate (but according to the best information we can gather, KU’s graduation rates are far higher than the average traditional university achieves with students from similar demographic background); they sometimes default (but the default rate among Kaplan University graduates is 4.5 percent).

Much of the series refers to the recruiting practices of for-profit colleges. During a federal investigation in 2010, we learned that one recruiter at a Kaplan College vocational campus had used utterly reprehensible tactics in recruiting a student.

Readers might ask themselves: What would your company do if it was facing such a challenge? Here’s what Kaplan did.

1. We stopped enrollment on the campus for months, until we could assure ourselves that every student in attendance had been admitted properly. Every student was offered a full refund if they wanted to leave. (The vast majority chose to stay.)

2. We adopted a program called The Kaplan Commitment, which offered something no university in the country did: A student could then enroll and take five weeks of classes, drop out any time during the five weeks and owe no tuition and incur no debt.

This program cost us well over $100 million. That’s how badly we wanted to ensure that no student attended Kaplan University because of false recruiting.

That’s how much money we lost — and that’s how much money Kaplan itself (not Kaplan University — the whole of Kaplan) makes in a good year. This was quite an extraordinary act; Your reporter ignored it. And all the information I have cited here is publicly available in obvious places (our SEC filings and Kaplan’s annual report).

I would like to say a last word as a longtime journalist. When a reporter writes only one side of a multi-sided story, such a reporter is normally kept in check by editors. Good editors demand that a reporter get both sides of a story. They do not publish blatantly unfair work. That wasn’t done at the Miami Herald.

The editors of the Herald deserve far more blame for this wretched work than the reporter. It is as if the words “for-profit education” made everyone at the Herald believe that there was no further reporting to be done.

But for-profit businesses can do a great deal of public good.

My Exhibit A would be the Miami Herald, a for-profit newspaper which at one time went to great lengths to give Floridians an honest and balanced view of the place they live.

Donald E. Graham is the chairman and CEO of Graham Holdings Company.

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