For-Profit Schools Retooling Recruitment Strategy

Under pressure from regulators, for-profit colleges and universities are retooling their recruitment strategies. After casting their net widely for any student who can get federal loans, some companies are fishing for higher quality students, who are more likely to finish school.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

GUY RAZ, host:

And I'm Guy Raz.

Commercials for for-profit colleges are a staple of late-night television.

(Soundbite of TV commercial)

Unidentified Man: They'll work with you after work or you can go before work. You can do whatever you need to do to graduate. Go talk to somebody right now; they out to help you. You spend all day on the phone, anyhow.

RAZ: Ads like this one, from Everest Career Educational Network, have long been part of a strategy to fill seats and bring as many students as possible to for-profit schools.

But NPR's Larry Abramson reports that for-profits are now feeling pressure to change the way they recruit.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Those ads have helped draw in more than three million students to an education sector that may have boomed too much for its good. For-profit recruits are more likely to borrow more federal aid and are more likely to default on those loans.

New federal rules meant to address that problem could shut some programs down. So schools like the University of Phoenix are starting to move from drift-net fishing, to precision fly-casting in order to land more students likely to survive the challenges of college.

Mr. RYAN ROUZON (Spokesman, University of Phoenix): The vast majority of students do come to us in large part from the marketing, from the media that we provide.

ABRAMSON: Phoenix spokesman Ryan Rouzon sits down at a computer and illustrates how the nation's largest for-profit has long attracted potential degree seekers. He goes to Google.

Mr. ROUZON: And I type in college degree. What should we call it - let's say education.

ABRAMSON: Used to be that selection would send you to a site like Universities.com, a so-called lead generator that gathers information about you. The lead generator then sells information to lots of different schools. But now the University of Phoenix says it is turning away from leads from third-party generators because they're too unreliable.

Ryan Rouzon says the company will focus on generating its own leads.

Mr. ROUZON: We hold ourselves to a higher standard than the one that all of our critics and skeptics hold us to. And it's why we've been making this shift, to control it.

ABRAMSON: Phoenix has bought a lead generating company and has told investors it will back off on the use of third-party leads, because it feels those students are more likely to flunk out or default on loans.

There are many slimy ways of generating leads, including the old bait and switch. Ever been offered a chance to win a free iPad? But those incentivized leads are considered tainted because people have their eyes on the prize, not on the service being offered.

Zeeshan Hayat is with Prizm Media, a lead generator that sells information to many schools. To improve the quality of his leads, Hayat signs contracts with TV game shows. If callers phone in to answer the show's question of the day, they'll be answered a chance to learn about a career school.

Mr. ZEESHAN HAYAT (Co-Founder/Managing Director, Prizm Media Inc.): The biggest key is that they're actually picking up the phone and calling us. They're listening to the pitch. They're listening to the marketing pitch.

ABRAMSON: Potential students who come in through this route are supposed to be worth more because they've taken some initiative. Lead generators are also under pressure to improve the quality of their leads, by gathering more information about whether potential students have some college experience, for example.

Many remain skeptical that for-profit ed is sincere about dropping the hard sell and focusing on students who can succeed.

David Hawkins is with the National Association for College Admissions Counseling.

Mr. DAVID HAWKINS (Director of Public Policy and Research, National Association for College Admissions Counseling): Many of these reforms that have been announced by the publicly traded companies have come only after a very long and protracted policy battle.

ABRAMSON: And the lobbying group for the for-profit industry continues its advertising campaign, running TV commercials that it hopes will persuade the Department of Education and Congress to ease the regulatory pressure.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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