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For-profit online colleges are already ramping up efforts to attract vulnerable students who have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report by the Century Foundation, a consumer advocacy group.

In past economic downturns, some predatory institutions saw an opportunity to target people who were struggling, and the same thing is likely happening again, says author Taela Dudley, a senior policy associate at the foundation.

Dudley and colleagues have been tracking advertising spending by the 100 for-profit and nonprofit colleges with the largest online enrollments. The analysis found that some colleges have increased their marketing budgets since March.

The vast majority of institutions reviewed did not use the pandemic as a marketing angle, but some institutions started using phrases such as “stay home” regularly in ads promoting online programs, the report found.

A small number of institutions also began more aggressively marketing health care programs. Among all ads analyzed by The Century Foundation, 885 out of 2,000 were for health care programs. The report also found that some institutions started running ads under keywords associated with the health care field even when the programs advertised had no connection with health care. 

Pandemic-themed advertisements seek to pull in students “through messaging about uncertainty,” said the report. “Schools from all sectors are getting mileage out of referencing ‘uncertain times’ months into the health and economic crisis,” the report said.

Using the pandemic as a hook for marketing is less concerning than what happens when an institution gets the attention of a prospective student, said Dudley. “We know from past experience that predatory schools use economic downturns, student hardship and other external challenges to prey on and bait students. It’s natural to expect the same thing during COVID-19, and that’s why monitoring marketing practices -- and examining the strategies behind them -- is so important,” she said.

“If an ad reaches a student who later finds a meaningful, quality opportunity that serves them well, that’s great,” said Dudley. “But if ads are targeted at vulnerable students, and intended to lure students into low-quality programs, that’s bad. It is the schools that have been previously cited for predatory, misleading and abusing recruiting practices that are the real concern during the current pandemic. Because their advertising is just the tip of the iceberg.”

For-profit institutions the University of Phoenix and Walden University were among the top five biggest spenders on Google Ads in March among large online universities, the report found. The University of Phoenix spent just under two million dollars in estimated pay-per-click costs in March, according to The Century Foundation's analysis -- the most of any online institution reviewed in the study.

Online institutions also spent millions on display ads. Strayer University, another for-profit institution, topped the list of online institutions with the highest display ad expenditure, followed by Purdue University Global and Western Governors University. Strayer spent an estimated $9.5 million on display ads between March and May. Between July 5 and July 12, the report notes that Strayer's estimated weekly spend on display advertisement marketing rose from $620,000 to $2.6 million.

The Century Foundation expressed particular concern about an advertisement by Park University that promised easy credit transfer for students who attended the private nonprofit university as part of a "gap year" program, which encourages students to study online temporarily with the institution.

“Claims about credit transferability are especially important now, as students re-evaluate their ability to return to distant and campus-based institutions amid an ongoing pandemic,” Yan Cao, a fellow at Century, wrote in a commentary piece published alongside the report.

“Park University established a 'Gap Year' program to attract students who were previously enrolled at other schools, and who would -- in a post-COVID-19 world -- return to those institutions to complete their degrees,” wrote Cao. “The Gap Year pitch does not work unless the credits transfer, so the broad claims about universal transferability help sell the program. But because credit transfer must be negotiated on a school-to-school basis (and sometimes a program-to-program basis), Park’s claims are simply not credible.”

When Park University received notice of a complaint by the Century Foundation to its accrediting agency, the Higher Learning Commission, it immediately removed language suggesting its online class credits would “transfer easily to any accredited college or university,” said Greg Gunderson, president of Park University.

While the university would advise any prospective student at Park to talk to advisers at their home institution about credit transfer before enrolling, Gunderson said Park officials didn't want to advertise anything that could be seen as misleading.   

The offending language was removed within 24 hours of receiving notice of the complaint, said Gunderson. The gap year program has since been revamped to reflect that students can pay to study $2,250 per term instead of committing to a full year. The program website will make clear that the transferability of credits earned at Park is at the discretion of the institution to which students want to transfer, said Gunderson. 

Park University was also highlighted in The Century Foundation report for its use of the slogan "Stay Safe. Study Online" in its online advertising. While Gunderson said he understood why there may be concern about this kind of marketing, he defended the slogan as an accurate statement that "reflects the time that we live in."

"I think it's important to look at the intent behind these words," said Gunderson. The environment students are facing today is radically different than it was before, and some students are actively looking to study 100 percent online because they are at high-risk medically, he said.

"We are trying to help our consumers and our students become aware of their options," said Gunderson.

Walking a Fine Line

Referencing the pandemic in advertising is not uncommon, but there is a “fine line between appropriate and inappropriate here,” said Bob Brock, president of the Educational Marketing Group.

“Trying to scare students into studying online in order to ‘stay safe’ or take advantage of degrees that may be perceived as more in demand because of COVID is often just crass and in some cases may border on being unethical,” said Brock. Playing on students’ concerns about getting sick is a “lazy way of advertising that doesn’t do your brand any good,” he said.

On the other hand, acknowledging the reality of the pandemic in a “straightforward and positive way” can help institutions show that they are supportive of students’ current needs and concerns, said Brock. Brock shared a recent ad that his team developed for West Virginia University Online with the tagline “Better days are ahead. And you can be ready with an in-demand degree.” The ad was “well received and very effective,” said Brock.

The Century Foundation report is “research looking for a problem,” said Steve Gunderson, president and CEO of Career Education Colleges and Universities, a membership organization that represents a large number of for-profit institutions. “When one uses the words ‘predatory’ and ‘historically,’ we automatically know they are ideologically biased against the sector and using experiences from a decade ago to make allegations against schools today.”

With 16 million people unemployed and many seeking jobs in new fields, career education schools expect to see an increase in enrollment, but they have to advertise to make the public aware of the programs they offer, said Gunderson. “Because most of our students are adult students, we need to reach them through traditional advertising -- as opposed to a high school guidance counselor. So, our schools will certainly advertise. But no one expects enrollment increases similar to those of the Great Recession.”

While some for-profits and large online institutions have increased their marketing spend since March, many public and smaller private institutions have had to reduce their marketing budgets, said Donna Lehmann, assistant vice president for marketing at Fordham University, a private nonprofit institution in New York City.

Regardless of marketing budget, all higher education marketers are walking a fine line between “seeming exploitative and seeming clueless,” said Lehmann. She shared that in the spring, when COVID-19 cases peaked in New York, Fordham took down ads for its pre-med postbaccalaureate program.

Fordham normally advertises the pre-med program each year with images of health-care professionals. But this year it didn’t feel respectful to advertise at a time when heroic medical workers were losing their lives fighting COVID-19, said Lehmann. She added the institution was also concerned about giving the impression of trying to capitalize on a crisis.

“During an economic downturn, colleges and universities often see an uptick in enrollment due to unemployment, career changes or a need to upgrade skills or credentials. This downturn is no different in that regard,” said Lehmann. “What’s different with COVID-19 is the scope of disruption and loss. We’re struggling with how to acknowledge that in all things -- in ads, pictures on the website, fundraising appeals,” she said.

“How do we go about the business of a university without appearing tone-deaf to the pain and difficulty surrounding us?” asked Lehmann. “If you include reference to the pandemic, you might be seen as preying upon students' fears, but if you don't, how can you be acting like everything is normal?”

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