Seeing shifting landscape, for-profit colleges ramp up marketing

With millions of Americans newly unemployed, sheltering at home, and uncertain when college campuses will reopen, some for-profit online schools are seeing an opportunity to fill the void. According to the Associated Press (AP), several large for-profit institutions have launched targeted advertising campaigns referencing these unusual times and offering introductory discounts.

Critics are cautioning that this environment could fuel a resurgence of predatory recruitment practices by for-profit institutions. The industry—which just received more than $1 billion from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act—has been on the decline in recent years. For-profit college enrollment peaked in 2010 and had fallen by 50 percent as of 2017.

Adding recruiters, placing ads that speak to the moment

Analysts, however, have told the AP that “the conditions could be ripe for a resurgence” of online colleges, many of which are for-profit schools. Sensing an opportunity, Zovio, the parent company of the online, for-profit Ashford University, recently decided to add 200 enrollment advisors.

Other online colleges are reorienting their messages to acknowledge the pandemic, with Capella University touting “flexible education for uncertain times.” New University of Phoenix ads say you’ll be “online, but never on your own.”

Discounts targeting displaced students

Some for-profit online colleges are leading with financial savings. Capella University, for instance, is offering nursing and teaching students a “Front Line Heroes” discount. The school— along with its sister institution, Strayer University—also is reaching out to students at historically Black colleges and universities, telling them they can take free courses online this fall if their campuses remain closed.

The American Public University System, another for-profit online school, is targeting college students whose schools aren’t offering much online instruction amid COVID-19, offering them half off two summer courses. APU leaders say they’ll encourage students to transfer those credits back to their original colleges. “We don’t want to hurt institutions,” Wallace Boston, APU’s president, told the AP.

Critics warn against deceptive targeting, urge more stringent oversight

However, the AP writes that the outreach has prompted concern among critics, who hear “echoes of the 2008 recession, when for-profit colleges enrolled record numbers of students but left many of them with heavy debt and few job prospects.” Noting that for-profit chains have stepped up their paid Facebook ads, the advocacy group Veterans Education Success cautioned that “aggressive and deceptive targeting will once again harm veterans’ academic and economic prospects.”

Similarly a recent letter to state and federal lawmakers signed by leaders from the National Student Legal Defense Network and Institute for College Access and Success warns that “a perfect storm is brewing for a rip-off revival,” in which “the most vulnerable students will inevitably pay the heaviest price.”

Schools say they’re just preparing to meet demand

For-profit college leaders, meanwhile, say they are simply getting ready for a likely influx of students interested in online education. “Hundreds of thousands of students are either going to be concerned about their health, or they’re literally not going to be able to go back to their dorms,” said Karl McDonnell, CEO of Strategic Education, Inc., the parent company for Capella and Strayer universities. “Our view is, let’s just do whatever we can to be helpful.”

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