As the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and its mismanagement continues to ravage the country, it is not hard to imagine an increased number of people turning to colleges to look for new credentials in hopes of increasing their job prospects. Colleges may be tempted to do anything necessary to cash in on this new supply of students, and it is more important than ever to protect these prospects from misleading or predatory practices.
As part of an ongoing project with that end in mind, The Century Foundation is monitoring college advertising. An ad run by Brandman University this summer got caught in our net for its misleading nature. The ad in question is indicative of why colleges may want to examine their advertising practices. In particular, when colleges run ads that are based on very specific data to imply more general outcomes a prospective student might expect, a clear line is crossed into both questionable and misleading territory. Without question, colleges are obligated to avoid using misleading statements in their advertisements, but ideally all schools equally avoid crossing into gray areas.
Brandman University’s Misleading Ad
Brandman University is a private, nonprofit institution founded in 1958 by Chapman University to serve military and other so-called nontraditional adult students. In September, Brandman Chancellor Gary Brahm announced that Brandman University would change its name to UMass Global at the finalization of a long-discussed partnership between Brandman and the University of Massachusetts (UMass) to establish an online education brand. The deal advances UMass’s goal of joining the growing “global campus” club, and along the way may elevate the perceived value of a Brandman degree: unlike Ashford University’s proposed conversion to University of Arizona Global Campus, for example, the UMass Global deal will give all past Brandman graduates the option of receiving a new diploma from UMass Global.
The ability of past Brandman graduates to swap out their diploma for one that says they graduated from UMass Global raises some interesting questions: Just what is the current value of a Brandman degree? How does it compare to that of Brandman’s competitors? And, just who are Brandman’s competitors?
As it turns out, these questions rise in importance when you consider a Facebook ad that Brandman ran this past summer featuring the statement “2X more likely to graduate,” with accompanying text indicating that “Brandman students are twice as likely to reach their education goals.” (See Figure 1.)
If prospective students came across this ad claiming Brandman students were twice as likely to graduate and reach their goals, how should they interpret the claim? Should they assume they would be twice as likely to graduate from Brandman as they would if they attended another nonprofit online giant, such as Southern New Hampshire University or University of Maryland Global Campus? That may seem reasonable, but as it turns out, Brandman was making the claim based on graduation data from an entirely different group of colleges—for-profit colleges—that have notoriously substandard student outcomes.
When TCF sought clarification for the “2X more likely to graduate claim,” Brandman officials referred to a consumer information page on their website. In August, that page listed the claims from the ad in question along with a citation to National Center for Education Statistics eight-year graduation rate data (see Figure 2).
When TCF asked for further clarification, Brandman updated the consumer information page with details that the claim was based on a comparison of the university’s eight-year graduation rate of non-first-time full-time undergraduates to the graduation rate of for-profit institutions—a grouping of colleges that includes schools such as DeVry and the University of Phoenix. (See Figure 3.)
TCF alerted Brandman’s accreditor to the misleading nature of the advertisement, because the clarification on its consumer information page is inadequate and the use of the claim is inappropriate. Brandman University is a nonprofit school whose top competitors, according to the search analytics website SpyFu, might reasonably include schools such as National University, or Pacific Oaks College. A student viewing the ad might assume they are two times more likely to graduate from Brandman than if they chose a likely Brandman competitor, and would have no way of knowing that the claim was meant to be a comparison solely to for-profit college graduation rates. Indeed, Brandman’s subsequent official response to our complaint included a data presentation that shows its self-selected comparison group is overwhelmingly for-profit. Further, Brandman University aims to serve working adults, students for whom an eight-year graduation rate might be reasonable if they were enrolled part time. However, Brandman’s initial response to TCF was to base the claim on comparisons using only full-time student completion rates—students whose outcomes are typically presented at four- or six-year points in time; part-time completion rates were not included. No prospective student looking at Brandman’s ad would make these assumptions, so the ad is misleading. Brandman has since informed TCF that they have taken down the advertisement at the center of TCF’s complaint.
This is not the first time Brandman has made claims about having a high graduation rate. A 2016 Brandman television ad recently brought to TCF’s attention said Brandman had “one of the highest graduation rates of any university of its kind.” With what is known about how Brandman formulated its 2020 Facebook ad claims, one has to wonder if the university considers “its kind” to be for-profit colleges—and why that is the case.
It’s not clear whether Brandman intended to mislead students. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, their remedial reaction to TCF’s inquiry may indicate that they simply made a mistake in crafting the ad. What’s important, though, is that Brandman—and similar institutions running advertising campaigns—should not make these errors, and instead should critically examine the claims they make and how they arrived at them. TCF’s team has been reviewing college advertising and conferring with institutions for the majority of 2020, and our work indicates that it is possible for schools to avoid missteps—there are many institutions that not only follow the letter of law, but also avoid any gray areas entirely.
Institutions are ultimately responsible for their brand, even if they have contracted a firm to manage or assist them with their marketing efforts. Institutions must take care with their ad campaigns, and if they’ve hired a marketing firm, must charge those agents with doing the same. If the data has to be massaged or cherry-picked to such a point as in the case of Brandman, then the resulting claim is not one that the school should publicize, let alone use to attract new students.
Editor’s note: This commentary was corrected to include Gary Brahm’s accurate title and to identify the diploma-granting institution as UMass Global.