Three times during the past decade, the Pittsburgh campus of Kaplan Career Institute was named "school of the year" by Kaplan Higher Education, a for-profit higher-education company with more than 70 campuses nationwide. The award recognized the college for its rapid growth and high graduation and job-placement rates.
But some former faculty members say the honor came at a steep price: To keep those numbers high, administrators would pressure employees to falsify attendance records, raise grades, and manipulate job-placement numbers. If a professor refused to change a student's grade, the professor's supervisor would do it, the faculty members say.
"We were constantly told to lower the bar, that we were helping poor people," says Dolores A. Howland-Justice, a former instructor who has filed a lawsuit that accuses Kaplan of fraudulently obtaining millions of dollars in federal student aid by inflating its graduation and job-placement rates. "We were 'do gooders'—that was really played upon."
Kaplan is fighting the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for Southern Florida, where the case has been consolidated with a lawsuit that makes similar claims against the related Kaplan University. A Florida judge tossed out part of the Pittsburgh suit in December but granted the plaintiffs the right to file an amended claim.
Kaplan declined to respond to questions for this article, citing the pending litigation.
Faculty complaints about the quality and rigor of for-profit education are hardly limited to Kaplan, a subsidiary of the Washington Post Company, with about 112,000 students in campus-based and online programs. In interviews with The Chronicle and lawsuits filed around the country, more than a dozen current and former professors from six of the seven largest publicly traded education companies say they were leaned on to dumb down courses, offer lengthy extensions, and change failing grades. They describe a system in which expectations are low, cheating is tolerated, and faculty are under tremendous pressure to keep students enrolled.
"We were supposed to keep students in the classroom by any means necessary," says Luccia Rogers, a former professor at Career Education Corporation's Collins College, who says the college fudged grades and forgave repeated plagiarism—claims that the college denies. "It was all about keeping people in the seats to keep the federal money coming in."
Federal student aid is the lifeblood of for-profit colleges, many of which get close to 90 percent of their revenue from Pell Grants, student loans, and other government programs. But the money comes with a key condition: To receive the aid, students must show that they are making "satisfactory academic progress" toward a degree or credential. If they drop or fail too many classes, the government cuts them off.
'Entertain Them and Retain Them'
Ms. Howland-Justice, who resigned in 2006, said the pressure to pass students began shortly after she joined Kaplan as an instructor in the business program, in 2000. A program director approached her in the hall, she says, and told her that a certain student needed to pass. Ms. Howland-Justice responded, "Well, they failed," and the program director repeated herself: "They need to pass." When she failed the student anyway, her supervisor called her in for questioning.
"I pushed it away, but it was definitely a sign, a red flag," she said in an interview last month.
She also quickly discovered that she was expected to do more than just teach; she was supposed to track down absent students, too. Each week, she said, faculty held a "retention meeting" to swap notes on where they'd seen students last. Professors were given lists of absent students to call during their office hours and were required to record why the student had missed class. Students spotted meeting with their advisers, or even glimpsed on the street, would be marked present, she said.
Sometimes supervisors would suggest creative ways to persuade students to return, such as offering to pay for their transportation or reminding them that their student-loan refund check was ready for pickup, she said.
James Watson, who taught at the college for 17 years before he was laid off in 2006, said faculty were encouraged to tell students they could make up all of the work they had missed, even if they had been absent for weeks. If students were at risk of failing, professors would give them extra-credit assignments to bring their grades up. Twice a semester, the campus would hold "make up days." Faculty members would roll out carts piled high with folders containing all the work students had missed that term.
"We were expected to bend over backwards to make sure every student passed," said Mr. Watson, who is not part of the lawsuit. "The pressure was solely and completely on us. It was not on the students' shoulders."
When students failed, it was because "we had not done enough to motivate them," he said.
Ms. Howland-Justice said administrators would tell faculty members that they weren't "fun" enough, that they should engage students through games like Bingo and Jeopardy. To encourage students to show up for class, the college would throw pizza parties and ice-cream socials, and hold raffles for iPods and gift cards.
"I once had a professor say to me, 'You know what your problem is? You think you're here to teach,'" Ms. Howland-Justice said. "Entertain them and retain them, that was our job."
Victoria G. Gatsiopoulos, a former director of career services at Kaplan's Pittsburgh campus and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, saw what became of the college's students when they graduated. She said many students struggled to find work in their fields and sometimes remained in the jobs they'd held before they enrolled.
In 2006, she and Ms. Howland-Justice bonded during a cigarette break and began sharing information. Ms. Gatsiopoulos brought their concerns to the company's compliance manager, confident, she said, that the problems would be fixed. When she was told that investigators found no major problems, she was devastated, she said.
"I was 'Ms. Kaplan,'" she said. "I really believed I could fix things."
Ms. Howland-Justice resigned, and the two women filed a lawsuit against Kaplan in November 2006. Ms. Gatsiopoulos was fired just over a year later, in what was described as a reduction in force. She believes the firing was retaliatory.
Their suit, which seeks the return of millions in federal student aid and Ms. Gatsiopoulos's job back, was filed under the federal False Claims Act, which allows whistle-blowers to sue on behalf of the federal government and receive a share of any money collected. If Kaplan is found liable, it will be required to pay up to three times the amount of fraudulently obtained student aid plus a civil penalty of $5,000 to $10,000 per infraction. As whistle-blowers, Ms. Gatsiopoulos and Ms. Howland-Justice would be entitled to up to 30 percent of the damages.
The lawsuit accuses the college of changing grades and stretching its job-placement statistics to comply with a federal rule that requires short-term programs to graduate and place at least 70 percent of their students in designated, or related, fields of employment. The suit claims that a graduate employed as a telemarketer was counted as working in "business administrative fashion merchandising," and that a fast-food restaurant manager was counted as working in "criminal justice."
Kaplan has moved to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing, among other things, that Ms. Justice and Ms. Gatsiopoulos have failed to prove that its programs are subject to the so-called 70-percent rule. In December the court dismissed that portion of the case on those grounds but granted the former employees the right to amend their claims. They filed an amended complaint in January and are awaiting a ruling.
The Pittsburgh case is one of three false-claims lawsuits against Kaplan that were consolidated in the Florida court in 2009. The broadest of the complaints, filed by three former academic officers at Kaplan University, accuses the company of coercing professors into inflating grades by tying their employment to student-satisfaction surveys administered at the end of the term. The plaintiffs argue that professors who give D's and F's are more likely to get negative student reviews and not be invited back.
"The bottom line is that if students rate you high, you will remain employed," said Carlos Urquilla-Diaz, a plaintiff and former professor, who was fired in 2006.
At some for-profit companies, the link between faculty compensation and retention is explicit. The American Public University System pays adjunct faculty members by the student rather than the course, offering $130 per student in undergraduate courses and $150 per student in graduate courses. But students must complete 60 percent of the class for the faculty member to receive the full amount; if a student drops the course before then, the professor gets only 45 percent of the fee, or $58.50 for an undergraduate. Full-time faculty, which make up a quarter of the total, receive a salary.
At Everest College Phoenix online, 15 percent of a professor's evaluation is based on his or her efforts to track down absent and at-risk students to offer "assistance and encouragement."
Some campuses of Heald College base 20 percent of each faculty evaluation on "student outcomes," a category that takes into account student surveys as well as retention and pass rates. The target rate for each is 85 percent, according to Ayn Embar-Seddon O'Reilly, an instructor who has taught online courses for both Everest College Phoenix and Heald. She says professors with high retention and pass rates are rewarded with pay raises and additional classes.
Both colleges are owned by Corinthian Colleges Inc, which enrolls 102,000 students at 120 campuses in the United States and Canada.
Kent Jenkins, a spokesman for the company, says completion and success rates are only "one factor among many" in faculty reviews, and are not used to determine bonuses. "They are an indication of the quality of teaching," he says. "If a disproportionate number of students are not completing, or dropping, it suggests there is a problem with the instruction."
Kaplan University, which tracks new professors by their courses' enrollments, drops, and grades using elaborate color-coded spreadsheets, assigns instructors a "U Rate" based on the percentage of students who withdraw or fail, according to former administrators involved in the lawsuit against the university. They say deans and department chairs were told to speak with faculty members with retention or pass rates below a high cutoff, and were pressured not to renew contracts for faculty members with high U Rates.
In a letter sent to the Chronicle shortly before publication of this article, a Kaplan spokesman said U Rates are used to evaluate course delivery methods, "to determine what works best for our students and where we can do better."
"Institutions across all sectors use metrics, such as Kaplan's U Rate, as one of many means to establish standards for assessing learning outcomes," wrote Ron Iori, senior vice president for communications.
At ITT Technical Institute's more than 125 campuses, professors receive printouts every week showing the percentage of students attending each class. Professors whose classes maintain an 80-percent attendance rate and who score high on student-satisfaction surveys are awarded bonuses at the end of the term, a former instructor says. She requested anonymity to protect her business's reputation from damage.
Lauren Littlefield, a spokeswoman for ITT Educational Services Inc., the parent company, says the bonus is consistent with "best practices" in the industry. "We hold our faculty accountable for the success of their students, and we use various incentives to motivate our faculty in this regard," she says, adding that the arrangement includes controls "to mitigate the risk of grade inflation."
Though nonprofit colleges also evaluate professors based on student satisfaction, "they don't monitor failure the same way for-profits do," on an instructor-by-instructor basis, says Guilbert C. Hentschke, a professor of education at the University of Southern California who is an expert on faculty governance. For-profits, he said, tend to "assign more accountability down to the department chair or the professor themself."
"The power is much closer to the classroom," he says.
Tying faculty pay to student satisfaction and student success encourages professors at for-profit colleges to reach out to absent and struggling students. That extra support can be crucial to the sector's students, many of whom are low-income, working adults, or the first in the family to attend college. But critics say the practice shifts the burden of responsibility from students to professors and creates incentives for instructors to relax their academic standards.
In interviews with The Chronicle, current and former professors from a wide range of for-profit colleges said they were pressured—and in some cases ordered—to offer extensions, forgive plagiarism, and inflate grades to keep students enrolled and the federal aid flowing.
Kate M. Burkes, who has taught online courses for the University of Phoenix, said plagiarism is widespread at the college. She said she reported one student for plagiarism seven times.
Chad Christian, a spokesman for the Apollo Group Inc., Phoenix's parent company and the largest for-profit-education company by far, says plagiarism is "strictly forbidden" under the student code of conduct and can lead to suspension or expulsion. He said the company responded within a week and a half of Ms. Burkes's initial report, sending a letter to the student to inform him that he was under investigation. The student didn't respond to the letter and was eventually placed on academic suspension.
Faculty complaints about grade changes are widespread in the for-profit sector. In recent years, faculty members from several for-profit colleges have filed lawsuits alleging that they had been fired after reporting altered grades or refusing to raise grades. Two such lawsuits are pending against ITT Educational Services, which paid $725,000 to California in 2005 to reimburse the state for Cal Grants awarded to academically ineligible students. The payment settled the state's portion of a lawsuit filed by two former employees that accused the company of falsifying grades to qualify the students for the grants, a claim the company denied.
But Mr. Hentschke, the faculty-governance expert, says it would be a mistake to conclude that there are more problems among for-profits than in the nonprofit sector simply because more lawsuits have been filed against them.
"Lawsuits happen where the money is," he says.
Instructors from several colleges said administrators often sided with students in disputes over grades, undermining the faculty's authority. One former professor at the Art Institutes chain of colleges, who asked not to be named because she was looking for another job, said students knew that if they complained loudly enough or threatened to sue, their grades would be raised. Department chairmen would sometimes order professors to change grades so students could meet the B average required for a state scholarship, she said.
"My job was to make money for the company—it wasn't to be an educator," she said.
Instructors on the Art Institute's Seattle campus cited similar practices in their failed bid to unionize last year. One of the organizers, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, said his students' grades had been changed at least a half-dozen times. He said he was trying to leave the institution, "but it's like a scarlet letter, coming from a for-profit."
Another organizer said faculty were encouraged to give high grades "to keep the students happy." Annual reviews amounted to a "popularity contest," as he put it, in which lenient graders were rewarded for high scores on student-satisfaction surveys.
Jacki Muller, a spokeswoman for Education Management Corporation, parent company of the Art Institutes (and the second-largest for-profit by enrollment), says it is "difficult, if not impossible, to respond to or defend against anonymous allegations that imply an inherent disregard for the principles contained within our code of conduct." She says students' course evaluations are one of five factors considered in annual reviews.
Ms. Rogers, the former Collins College instructor, said some admissions representatives would routinely call professors and question their grades. When she tried to create what she considered "minimal" admissions standards for an online program she was developing, an admissions consultant accused her of being elitist.
A professor at Sanford-Brown College, in Vienna, Va., has filed a complaint alleging that instructors are forbidden to give midterm exams because doing so "discourages" students. The instructor provided The Chronicle with a 2010 e-mail from a dean that said the college was continuing its no-midterm policy because it "seemed to work last mod[ule] in keeping up our retention numbers around midterm."
The instructor's complaint, which was sent to the college's accreditor and the U.S. Department of Education, also claims that the campus "culture" does not allow for failing grades.
"Those of us who have worked here for several years feel our honor has been soiled," the instructor wrote in an e-mail to the accreditor.
During the most recent term, 215 of Sanford-Brown's roughly 1,000 students had a 4.0 grade-point average, and 114 had a GPA of 3.5 to 3.75, according to an announcement posted on a campus bulletin board.
Mark D. Spencer, a spokesman for the college's parent company, Career Education Corporation, says it interviewed eight faculty members as part of an internal investigation into the complaint and found nothing to corroborate the instructor's claims. He said the current average GPA on the Vienna campus is 3.1, with 7 percent of students failing. He says the college conducts weekly assessments of student learning, even though it no longer offers midterms.
Allegations of grade inflation in higher education are not new and hardly unique to the for-profit sector, which enrolls about 10 percent of all students. For years, professors and administrators have complained about grade inflation in the nonprofit sector and sought to remedy it.
Still, recent data from the Education Department show that A's are significantly more common at for-profit colleges than at nonprofits. According to the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, a national survey of students who enrolled in 2007 and 2008, a quarter of students attending for-profits reported receiving "mostly A's," twice as many as at public colleges. At public two-year colleges, 17.5 percent of students said they got mostly A's.
Mr. Watson, the former professor at Kaplan, said administrators would regularly remind faculty members that they were providing opportunities to students who hadn't had many, and that "you have to give them breaks." But what the college was really offering, he said, was the opportunity to pass with little effort.
"When you enable students to do nothing to earn a grade," Mr. Watson said, "they're going to do nothing, and that's a simple fact."
The Pittsburgh campus of Kaplan Career Institute sits in a nondescript building downtown, on a corner overlooking the double-helix trusses of the Smithfield Street Bridge. From the other side of the Monongahela River, the blue torch of the Kaplan logo stands out among the blank facades of nearby buildings.
A security guard at the entrance directs visitors to the admissions office, where a sign on the door reads, "We build futures, one success story at a time." Inside the reception area, a TV monitor plays images of smiling professors and triumphant graduates, punctuated by the musical refrain, "Wait 'til you see my smile."
An inspirational poster on one recruiter's wall sums up the pitch to prospective students with a photograph of a basketball hoop and the caption: "Opportunity: You always miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take."
Today, Ms. Justice works as a psychiatric counselor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Ms. Gatsiopoulos is unemployed, and Mr. Watson, who has a master's degree in IT education, works the night shift stocking shelves at a grocery store. About 1,200 students on Kaplan's Pittsburgh campus are now enrolled in certificate and associate-degree programs. The most popular program, criminal justice, costs roughly $31,000, including books and supplies. In 2008, three-quarters of the college's students received Pell Grants or loans. The graduation rate for first-time, full-time students who began their studies in 2006-7 was 56 percent, according to the Education Department.
When it comes to job placement, graduates of some Kaplan programs in Pittsburgh are doing better than others, according to data reported to the state of Pennsylvania. More than three-quarters of recent graduates of the medical-assistant program are employed in their field, but only half of the graduates of the criminal-justice program—the college's largest—are so employed.
Students interviewed outside the Kaplan building on a recent spring evening offered mixed reviews of the college.
Josh Gill, a criminal-justice student who said his cousin had pressured him to enroll, said Kaplan was even better than he had expected. He had just recommended it to two other family members.
"The teachers help us strive for our success," said Mr. Gill, who wore the campus uniform: khaki pants and a polo shirt stamped with the college's name and torch logo. He said he had a 3.98 GPA.
But Dan Bateman and Matt Hale, who are also in the criminal-justice program, said they were disappointed by how "extremely easy" their courses were.
"I should have researched it a little better," Mr. Bateman said. "I'm not getting challenged, and it's too much money."
Mr. Hale said that he left the program last year to enroll at the Community College of Allegheny County, which offers a criminal-justice degree for an eighth of the price, but that he couldn't find classes that fit around his job as a security officer.
Most of the roughly 20 students interviewed said they hadn't heard of instructors' offering lengthy extensions or raising grades. Kiona Germany, who is in the medical-assistant program, said she "wouldn't want a teacher like that."
"There's no easy way out," she said.
But Mr. Bateman said one of his instructors recently complained to him about a student who never showed up for class. "The teacher told me, 'They'll probably make me change my grade again.'"
Faculty as Pawns?
Faculty members at six of the seven largest publicly traded higher-education corporations—the Apollo Group, the Career Education Corporation, Corinthian Colleges Inc., the Education Management Corporation, ITT Educational Services Inc., and the Washington Post Company's Kaplan Higher Education—say they were pressure to raise grades, tolerate plagiarism, and dumb down courses to keep federal student aid flowing. Here is a sample of their allegations:
Former instructors on Louisiana and California campuses of ITT Technical Institutes filed lawsuits claiming that they had been fired after reporting inflated grades or refusing to raise grades. The California suit claims the college altered attendance records as well.
A former instructor at Career Education Corporation's Collins College says it forgave repeated instances of plagiarism.
An instructor on the Vienna, Va., campus of Sanford-Brown College, owned by Career Education Corporation, has filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Education and the college's accreditor alleging that the campus "culture" does not allow for failing grades.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated several aspects of the cost of academic programs at the Kaplan Career Institute in Pittsburgh. The figure originally cited, $48,959, is for the most popular program, criminal justice, and is not an annual average for the campus. Excluding room and board, which is not available on the campus, the criminal-justice program costs roughly $31,000, including books and supplies, for an 18-month curriculum. The article has been changed to reflect this correction.