What follows is a guest post by group member, Elizabeth Kraus, Co-Founder of the Honest College Matchmaker.

Just before the GAO’s for-profit college secret shopping report was released, I coincidentally did a bit of secret shopping of my own in preparation for our webinar: Secret Shopper’s Report: Inside Admissions at the Leading For-Profit Colleges (“Secret Shopper’s Report: Inside Admissions at the Leading For-Profit Colleges.”) Our company, myUsearch.com, is in the business of matching students to colleges and we wanted to better understand which types of students would be more likely to enroll in certain colleges rather than others. I decided to pose as a prospective student and call a sample of for-profit colleges to ask them a simple question: “Why should a student choose your school over some of your peers?”

My experience revealed many issues in for-profit admissions, but in contrast to the GAO, I did not uncover any deceptive practices or overly aggressive admissions reps. As a disclaimer, I did not secret shop the financial aid department and I posed as a prospective MBA student who planned to cover the education costs with her own savings. This could be why my experience was so different, but there are a few things I uncovered that may 1) help colleges defend themselves against allegations and 2) provide insight to help colleges improve their admissions processes. You can view the complete webinar (“webinar”), but here are just a few things I learned:

The Experiment: I called six for-profit industry leaders: The University of Phoenix, Capella University, Westwood College, Keller Graduate School, Grand Canyon University and Everest University. In order to fairly compare these schools, the following constants were set in place:
1) All colleges were initially called at 10pm Eastern Standard Time
2) The fictitious student:
a. was interested in an online MBA program
b. received a bachelor of business in marketing from the University of Colorado in 2003
c. planned to pay for college with her own savings
d. was hoping to gain more operations and finance knowledge to secure a more central managerial position

While I don’t think it’s fair to name any names, my experience with two of the schools was excellent, fair with two schools, and absolutely atrocious with two schools. What separated the good from the bad? Here are just a few things that I didn’t expect to encounter:

1) Lack of Aggression: That’s right, you heard me. I know many people have the impression that for-profit admissions professionals are like vultures that strong arm their students into enrolling, however, this was not my experience at all. In fact, I thought some of the advisors were far too passive and lacked the ability to control the sales call. Each admissions advisor wanted to make sure I understood that going back to school was a big challenge and in some cases, they almost tried to talk me out of it. Not what I expected at all.
2) Pre-Screening Competency: Each of the schools responded to my phone call by fielding me through a pre-screening process in which they collected my contact information and asked me some quick questions in order to field me to the correct person. I commend these schools for doing this, as pre-qualification is a great way to reduce the time and money colleges and students spend on the process. However two of the schools were unable to access my information when I called back later and one school actually asked me to give them my contact information four times. Yikes!
3) Admissions Rep Availability: As I mentioned, two of the schools connected me directly to a qualified admissions representative at 10pm Eastern. Pretty impressive. However, in two instances, I called back during normal business hours and was still unable to speak to someone. If response speed (“response speed” ) is as important as studies have proven it to be, this could be a serious issue.
4) The Importance of Employee Happiness: Some of the admissions reps I spoke with thought their program was the greatest thing since sliced bread and their enthusiasm shined through. The other admissions reps seemed as if they couldn’t wait to get off the phone and go home. Don’t forget that your employees’ happiness can make a big impression on your prospective students.
5) Lack of Differentiation: Unfortunately, I still have not answered the question as to which types of students would be a better fit for For-Profit School A vs. For-Profit School B, but it was very clear which advisors were trained to convey their college’s differentiation. With three of the schools, I received very definitive answers without hesitation. The other schools struggled a bit and in one sad instance, the rep just stumbled around for a while and then told me she would need to do some research and get back to me. Without product differentiation, your advisors will be competing only on price and response speed, and that can be a pretty darn expensive strategy.

This process was very enlightening and I hope the information I’ve gathered is helpful to you. As I mentioned, I do not think it’s fair to name names, but if you are an authorized employee from one of the schools I contacted, I’d be happy to discuss specifics with you at ekraus at myusearch dot com.

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