Website Decries For-Profit Colleges And Also Markets Them
Candidate Joe Biden pledged to hold for-profit colleges accountable for ripping off taxpayers and ruining students’ lives, and Kamala Harris, in her Democratic convention speech, touted her work as California’s attorney general to fight for-profit college abuses. After four years of Trump education secretary Betsy DeVos protecting this bad-behaving industry, there’s much that the new Biden administration can do, some of it rapidly, to address the problem of predatory schools. At a time when the pandemic and resulting economic collapse are pushing more people to online career education programs, there are glaring, ongoing abuses in this industry — including a blatant one we just found with a quick web search: a site called Nonprofit Colleges Online, which heavily criticizes for-profit colleges but also steers students to for-profit colleges.
What we found lies in a field that needs urgent attention, which Republic Report has repeatedly exposed: deceptive “lead generation” websites that lure people with false promises — jobs, government benefits, information for veterans, COVID assistance — in order to feed their contact information to recruiters for high-priced, low-quality for-profit colleges. Once they obtain the leads, these shady for-profit schools press their recruiters to enroll as many students as possible to cash their taxpayer-funded financial aid dollars. Many of the students — veterans, single parents, immigrants, and others seeking a better future — end up with worthless credits and degrees, without the career advancement they sought and buried in student loan debt.
Law enforcement agencies, including the Federal Trade Commission, have pursued evidence of these scams and have taken action against some of the deceptive lead generation operations. The FTC’s efforts followed a 2012 action by 20 state attorneys general to compel online marketer QuinStreet to surrender the official-sounding domain GIBill.com, where it ran a lead generation site that steered veterans to for-profit colleges.
In 2019, the FTC took a step further, obtaining a settlement against one of the biggest and worst for-profit college chains, Perdoceo, operator of American Intercontinental University and Colorado Technical University, for deceiving students by recruiting them through these scam lead generation sites.
But while some colleges and lead generation sites have made changes in the wake of the FTC actions, and the for-profit college industry trade association CECU convened a “task force” that just released new “best practices” in lead generation, in reality many deceptive sites remain. We documented some of those earlier this year, and there are many more.
One is a scam college website I found in 5 seconds, as the third entry offered up by Google when I searched the phrase “worst for-profit colleges.” As I noted, it’s called “Nonprofit Colleges Online.”
That website bills itself as “the #1 destination on the Internet for information about non profit online universities and colleges.” It warns that “[f]or profit colleges have been coming under increased scrutiny lately, and for good reason. Many of the big names in the for profit college industry have used unsavory, possibly even illegal, pressure tactics to recruit students into their programs. Most of these students don’t ever graduate, leaving them saddled with crushing burdens of student-loan debt and no college degree to show for it.”
Nonprofit College Online laments that “the immoral, and frequently illegal, behavior of the for profit industrial complex has cast a shadow upon all online colleges and universities.”
But, fear not, Nonprofit Colleges Online promises, “the truth is, there are a number of traditional nonprofit colleges and universities, both private and public, that offer high quality, accredited online degree programs.” It pledges, “The goal of Nonprofit Colleges Online is to shine a spotlight on these nonprofit online schools and help prospective students, the media, and the general public realize that not all online colleges and universities are in it for the money.”
Nonprofit Colleges Online further declares that it “provides prospective students with information on accredited, non-profit online colleges and universities with a record of putting students before profits and education before the bottom line. Nonprofit Colleges Online provides current and prospective students with rankings, articles, and resources about the best nonprofit online higher education options available for their needs – at every degree level, career field, and region possible.”
Nonprofit Colleges Online, according to an Internet Archive search, has been around, with basically this same language on its site, since 2013 — a time when the collective revelations of government and media investigations had given the for-profit college industry a very bad reputation. The site has listed a few employees over the years. It’s unclear from the site itself who owns it.
Nonprofit Colleges Online provides pages that rank non-profit colleges in various categories “based on publicly available, verified information and …generated without bias.”
But the first thing you see on the website is not these ranking pages but a search box, titled “Find Your Degree” and bordered at the bottom by a tiny box that reads “AD.”
When you try searches on that tool — for associates, bachelors, and advanced degrees in programs including business, technology, criminal justice, health care, and liberal arts — the same schools come up over and over. Two of them are Southern New Hampshire University and Liberty University, two non-profit colleges that, like many for-profit colleges, recruit heavily for new students. Liberty is controversial over allegations of financial and other improprieties by the school’s former president, Jerry Falwell, Jr.
Other schools that appear as results from these searches are Keiser University, Herzing University, Purdue Global, and University of Arizona Global Campus — all formerly for-profit schools that, as revelations about for-profit college abuses in the last decade created a stigma and new regulations for the industry, converted to non-profits, but did so on controversial terms that raised questions about whether they were operating as true non-profit schools or whether they continued to enrich the former for-profit owners. Keiser, Purdue Global, formerly called Kaplan University, and Arizona Global, which until a few months ago was called Ashford University, also have faced multiple law enforcement investigations and actions for deceptive and unlawful practices. The rise of Purdue Global and Arizona Global — both now associated with state universities — also poses troubling questions about using an overpriced school marketed heavily at low-income people of color to subsidize richer, whiter people’s studies at traditional state schools.
It’s concerning enough that problematic schools like Keiser, Purdue Global, and Arizona Global — now formally non-profit but in many respects still acting like for-profits — are frequently highlighted on a website styled as criticizing for-profit colleges and providing objective advice about “the best nonprofit online higher education options available.”
But there’s something even worse here: Some schools that come up in searches on Nonprofit Colleges Online are, in fact, for-profit colleges — Strayer University, Capella University, Walden University, Full Sail University, Grantham University.
Strayer and Capella are operated by Northern Virginia-based, publicly-traded for-profit Strategic Education.
Walden, owned by Baltimore-based, publicly-traded for-profit Laureate Education, faces controversy right now because the Justice Department is investigating whistleblower claims that the school’s nursing program engaged in false advertising.
Previously owned by private equity firm TA associates, Florida-based Full Sail has been criticized for its ultra-high prices and has repeatedly flunked Department of Education tests to determine whether graduates earn enough to pay back their student loans.
Grantham University, based in Kansas, previously used other deceptive lead generation sites, including one called Army.com, to take advantage of U.S. veterans and service members, until the Federal Trade Commission shut those sites down.
If you click on any of these school options — including the for-profit colleges — from Nonprofit Colleges Online, you are redirected to the site of that school, where you are in turn asked to enter your contact information. If you do, you are likely to receive a phone call from a school recruiter within minutes.
It is blatant deceptive activity for a website that is called Nonprofit Colleges Online, and that purports to warn students about bad practices at for-profit colleges, to steer students to for-profit colleges — or for those for-profit colleges to exploit leads from that site to recruit new students.
We exposed back in 2013 what appeared to be a similar approach by another lead generation operation: seeking to build trust with students by giving them the lowdown on for-profit college scams, and then marketing programs at for-profits, including Capella and Kaplan, schools that Nonprofit Colleges Online also now pitches.
Nonprofit Colleges Online acknowledges that it “receives compensation from sponsored schools” but insists that such paying customer schools “are unmistakably marked as such,” while separate features on the site that rank schools “based on publicly available, verified information” are “developed completely separately from sponsorship, so sponsored schools cannot affect the rankings in any way.”
We reported last year on a number of other sites that similarly offered both colleges ranking features and search features, the latter yielding results based on advertising payments.
The problem is, it may be difficult for prospective students to tell the difference between the supposedly objective rankings and the paid search lists; indeed, a cynic would say that such confusion would financially benefit both the lead generator and its for-profit college customers.
That Nonprofit Colleges Online steers visitors to some for-profit colleges while being called NonProfit Colleges Online compounds the deception here. And Nonprofit Colleges Online expressly vouches for the schools that appear in its search results, calling them “trusted school partners.”
The FTC should be looking into NonProfit Colleges Online, as well as other websites that are blurring the lines between what are touted as objective rankings and paid search lists. And as with its case against Perdoceo, the FTC also should continue to take action against colleges that buy prospective student leads from these shady sites.
Sometimes there is a middle man company that provides college search tools for a website and separately contracts with the colleges themselves. So the colleges that come up in these searches may claim they have no direct relationship with, or have never heard of, Nonprofit Colleges Online. But if these colleges obtain leads, also known as students, from this site, they are ultimately benefiting from, and responsible for, the deception, as the FTC action against Perdoceo confirmed. The schools should be monitoring where their leads come from and taking action to prevent deception of students. They’re not.
Nonprofit Colleges Online has not responded to a request to speak or to written questions. Nor have Strategic Education, Laureate Education, Full Sail University, or Grantham University.
The new Biden Department of Education, as well as the Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense, all of which oversee federal aid for college-level students, should be working to hold accountable schools that get leads from deceptive lead generators. It injures both students and taxpayers that billions in federal aid keep flowing every year to college operations that engage in such deceptive practices.
UPDATE 01-25-21 4:35 pm:
After I posted this article I received the following email from the director of public relations at Full Sail University:
We appreciate your inquiry. This site you are referencing is owned by Best Choice Media. The University was not aware and did not knowingly agree to be placed on this directory site. Additionally, the University does not tolerate false statements, misleading information, or misrepresentation of any kind in its marketing efforts. We are disappointed to have learned this has happened.
We have already asked to be removed from the site for all programs and in all degree levels.
Additionally, TA no longer has an ownership interest in Full Sail University.
Full Sail’s response answers some questions but raises others, such as who Best Choice Media is and whether Full Sail will continue a relationship with them. I have asked Full Sail more questions and otherwise will pursue these matters. I have updated this article to reflect Full Sail’s statement that TA Associates is no longer an owner of the school.
UPDATE 01-29-21 4:34 pm:
Searches I have done just now on Nonprofit Colleges Online today are not bringing up for-profit schools Walden, Strayer, Capella, Full Sail, and Grantham, as they were when we published this article on Monday. As noted above, Full Sail told me they requested that they be removed from the search tool, and it appears that the other for-profits have now also been removed. I’m glad if Nonprofit Colleges Online has eliminated that deception, but I wonder how many people the site deceived with this conduct over the years. The other deceptive aspect of the site, and many other such lead generation sites — the ease with which a prospective student could confuse the researched college rankings with paid search results — persists.