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Tricks of the Trade School: A Guide to Manipulating Job Placement Rates

Published:  September 6, 2011
Issues:  

As we recently reported, there is growing evidence to suggest that some of the country’s largest for-profit higher education companies have deliberately misled prospective students and regulators about their record in placing graduates into jobs. But just how do they go about manipulating their job placement rates?

False Claims lawsuit that is pending in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida against Kaplan Higher Education provides some clues. In the lawsuit, Victoria Gatsiopoulos, a former senior career advisor at Kaplan Career Institute’s ICM campus in Pittsburgh, accused the company of cooking the books on the school’s job placement rates to ensure that the campus remained eligible to participate in the federal student aid programs.

Kaplan officials deny the charges. But at Higher Ed Watch, we find the allegations compelling because they are consistent with accusations that Kathleen Bittel, a career service advisor at Education Management Corporation’s Art Institute of Pittsburgh, made about EDMC in testimony she delivered at a U.S. Senate hearing last September.[EDMC denies the accusations from Bittel, who has since left the company.]

Together, the Kaplan lawsuit and Bittel’s testimony provide a revealing look at some of the tricks of the trade that for-profit colleges use to inflate their job placement numbers. According to the former career service advisors, schools often:

  • Count Any and Every Job as a Successful Placement

In calculating their job placement rates, for-profit schools are supposed to include only those graduates who find work in their field of study or related fields. But Bittel and Gatsiopoulos say that for-profit colleges often consider any and every job their graduates obtain as a successful placement.

According to the lawsuit against Kaplan, the company counted the following ICM graduates as being successfully placed:

  • An accounting management student who got a job stocking shelves and running the cash register at Walmart
  • A business administrative student who secured employment working the phones for the telemarketing firm Dial America
  • A criminal justice student who worked as a crew leader at McDonald’s

In her testimony, Bittel said that she and her fellow career advisors at EDMC were “repeatedly pressured to call graduates working in unrelated fields and review with them the courses they had taken while at the Art Institute to find obscure details of their current jobs where it could be considered that they were indeed ‘using their skills.’”

“If one could convince them that they were using these ‘skills’  at least 25 percent of the time in their current job, and to sign the employment form stating so, then their job could be counted as field related employment,” she stated. “This was rife with abuse. Employees were expected to convince graduates that skills they used in jobs such as working as waiters, payroll clerks, retail sales, and gas station attendants were actually related to their course of study in areas like graphic design and residential planning.”

  • Count Students Who Work for as Little as a Day

When calculating their employment rates, some for-profit college companies include graduates who are employed for extremely short periods of time.

According to Bittel:

There was no company policy [at EDMC] stating that a graduate had to be currently employed in order for their job to be counted among the statistics. If they had worked in their field for one day within the time period between graduation and the six month deadline, it was routinely included in the statistics as gainful employment.[emphasis added]

Similarly, the Kaplan lawsuit cites records that the career institute provided the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) that show that the company considered the following ICM graduates to be successfully placed:

  • A security/investigative agent who worked from March 13 to 14, 2006
  • A medical assistant who worked a one-day assignment on July 14, 2006
  • A receptionist who worked from May 5 through 20, 2006
  • An insurance representative who worked from August 7 through 28, 2006
  • Count Students Who Work at Same Job They Had Before Enrolling

For-profit colleges often take credit for jobs their graduates had before they enrolled. According to the lawsuit, Kaplan considered the following ICM graduates to be successfully placed:

  • A residential program worker who graduated on August 16, 2005, but had held the same job since May 15, 2001
  • A parking enforcement officer who graduated on May 3, 2006, but had held the same job since August 14, 2000.
  • Exclude Certain Students from the Pool of Graduates Counted

The former career advisors say that for-profit schools also inflate their job placement rates by excluding certain graduates from their calculations. To do so, the schools must get the graduates to sign waivers saying that they have experienced “extenuating circumstances” that prevent them from seeking employment.

In her testimony, Bittel said that EDMC officials routinely exclude graduates if they meet the following conditions:

  • Military  – active duty military or the spouse of a soldier
  • Medical Condition – primary care-giver or suffering from a medical condition or disability preventing them from working.
  • Established Professional  – someone who had worked in an unrelated field for at least 6 months earning a minimum of 10 percent more than the average starting salary in their degree program
  • Stay at Home Parent – one not seeking employment, choosing to raise their children instead
  • Education – one who was continuing their education and choosing not to seek employment at that time

While some of these exclusions are entirely legitimate, others can be easily gamed (as we will see in the next section). Bittel particularly objects to excluding “established professionals” because, in many cases, the schools have failed to deliver on their promises.

“The established professional, by signing this form, was essentially acknowledging that they could not leave their current employment due to the ‘financial hardship’ it would cause them, because a job in their degree field would pay them far less than what they were already earning in the field they had hoped to leave by obtaining the education,” Bittel stated.

  • Fabricate and Falsify Records

As we have previously reported, some companies have been accused of completely fabricating  job placement records and forging graduates’ signatures on them. The allegations that Bittel and Gatsiopoulos have made don’t rise to that level but are serious nonetheless.

In her testimony, Bittel said that when graduates report earnings that are too low to be considered a successful placement, career service advisers at EDMC have often deleted the records and created new ones using average salary data they obtain from the website Salary.com for the relevant occupation. EDMC officials have repeatedly denied these allegations.

According to the lawsuit against Kaplan, company officials require employees to get students “to sign fraudulent waivers attesting that they are continuing their education.”  Unlike EDMC, Kaplan counts graduates who continue their studies to be successfully placed, the lawsuit states. To pump up their numbers, “Defendants required their employees, including Relator Gatsiopoulos, to have students sign waivers even when they had no plans of continuing their education,” the complaint says.

Conclusion

The  allegations included in these cases should provide a useful road map for the Department of Education officials and state attorney generals who are investigating the industry. Because ultimately it will be up to these federal and state regulators to determine just how widespread these practices are and how much damage they have caused.