During this pandemic economy, many colleges are ramping up recruitment efforts to capitalize on a pandemic that has isolated potential students, displaced workers, and heightened job insecurity. Higher education and job training are important components of a national recovery, and it is important for schools to share information about their programs with potential students. But past recessions have brought explosions in predatory schools that rely on slick marketing, aggressive sales tactics, and false promises to grow enrollments (and profits). A resurgence of these tactics would be costly for taxpayers (who underwrite federal financial aid) and devastating for students.

As The Century Foundation monitors online advertising for dubious claims, we are taking action to call out bad practices where we see them. In recent weeks, our efforts to clean up the online marketplace for higher education have included a request that schools stop describing sales-driven recruiters as “coaches,” a letter asking accreditors to clamp down on false claims about credit transfer, and a complaint seeking Federal Trade Commission investigation of misleading websites that promise data-driven information but deliver sponsored content.

The School That Overpromised about Credit Transfers

When Park University promised that its online class credits would “transfer easily to any accredited college or university,” we called foul and notified its accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission (HLC). HLC responded by promptly initiating an investigation after it determined that the marketing material we flagged raised legitimate concerns regarding Park’s compliance with accreditation rules.

Figure 1: Park University Claims Regarding Accreditation and Transferability
Source: park.edu/gapyear/, screenshot captured July 21, 2020.

Claims about credit transferability are especially important now, as students re-evaluate their ability to return to distant and campus-based institutions amid an ongoing pandemic. Park University established a “Gap Year” program to attract students who were previously enrolled at other schools, and who would—in a post-COVID 19 world—return to those institutions to complete their degrees. The Gap Year pitch does not work unless the credits transfer, so the broad claims about universal transferability help sell the program. But because credit transfer must be negotiated on a school-to-school basis (and sometimes a program-to-program basis), Park’s claims are simply not credible.

Accreditors like HLC do not guarantee credit transfer, but do have an obligation to monitor the ethics and integrity of schools that get their stamp of approval. They are among the oversight bodies that must step up to prevent trusted institutions from making untrustworthy claims.

The “Coaches” Who Were Sales Agents

We asked Northeastern University to scrap a marketing campaign that describes enrollment representatives as “coaches” when, in fact, these representatives were paid to function more like sales representatives than true college counselors. In online ads, Northeastern dangled an appealing proposition: potential students could connect with coaches who would help students find the “right program” to meet their educational needs. In fact, the job description for Northeastern’s “coaches” would fit within any sales-focused call center. Coaches are expected to come with sales experience and meet “conversion benchmarks” and “enrollment goals.”

For-profit schools have honed the tactic of using terms like “advisers” and “counselors” to create the false impression that their sales agents are providing advice in the best interests of the prospective student. While the tactic may be effective from a sales standpoint, it is dishonest, and takes advantage of the difficulty students face in navigating between costly educational programs. Our request asked Northeastern to ditch this questionable practice and take the high road by informing students about the true nature of its “coaches.”

The College Rankings Website That Sold Out Students

We filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) about a bait-and-switch website, BestColleges.com, that promises data-driven resources but steers prospective students to commission-driven recommendations. The bread and butter of the site is a “Match Tool” that offers to link visitors with the best online colleges for their needs. In fact, the Match Tool feeds users to schools that pay BestColleges for clicks and referrals. Moreover, many of BestColleges’s advertising partners are profit-driven schools with sketchy records and bad outcomes for students. For example, Ashford University, recommended for its economics program, was recently sued by the California attorney general for lying to students.

Figure 2: Homepage for Bestcolleges.com
Source: bestcolleges.com, screenshot captured June 18, 2020.

Since prospective students would be far less likely to sign up for a school if they knew that BestColleges’s suggestions were based on payment rather than a scientific methodology, the site claims that “Schools cannot buy their way onto our rankings, they are independently ranked.” That sounds good, but is highly misleading. Schools can and do buy their way into BestColleges’s recommendations, but a subset of “independent” web pages serve up decoy content—like rankings that are unrelated to the site’s recommendations—to lure in curious students and lend an air of legitimacy to a sleazy, payment-based referral scheme.

As an agency tasked with protecting consumers from unfair and deceptive practices, the Federal Trade Commission has pledged to take action against schools and websites that rely on trickery to get the attention of prospective students. We filed a complaint and asked the FTC to investigate BestColleges.com, other deceptive referral sites, and the schools that buy referrals from them.

Our Work Continues

Broad action is needed to prevent another wave of predatory practices by colleges that are more focused on recruiting students than on educating them. As our monitoring efforts expands with your crowdsourced screenshots, tweets to @BarkProject, and emails to [email protected], we will continue to take action to call out unscrupulous colleges.