Scrutiny Takes Toll on For-Profit College Company

Stanley H. Kaplan started his tutoring business in the basement of his parents’ Brooklyn home in 1938. As standardized tests became a bigger fixture of American education, his company became a national operation, preparing millions of students for the SAT, LSAT, MCATs and other tests.

Kaplan was still a test-prep company when the Washington Post Company bought it in 1984, after Richard D. Simmons, the president, convinced Katharine Graham of its potential for expansion and profits.

Over the last decade, Kaplan has moved aggressively into for-profit higher education, acquiring 75 small colleges and starting the huge online Kaplan University. Now, Kaplan higher education revenues eclipse not only the test-prep operations, but all the rest of the Washington Post Company’s operations. And Kaplan’s revenue grew 9 percent during the last quarter to $743.3 million — with higher education revenues more than four times greater than those from test-prep — helping its parent company more than triple its profits.

But over the last few months, Kaplan and other for-profit education companies have come under intense scrutiny from Congress, amid growing concerns that the industry leaves too many students mired in debt, and with credentials that provide little help in finding jobs.

Reports of students who leave such schools with heavy debt, only to work in low-paying jobs, have prompted the Department of Education to propose regulations that would cut off federal financing to programs whose graduates have high debt-to-income ratios and low repayment rates.

Though Kaplan is not the largest in the industry, the Post Company chairman, Donald Graham, has emerged as the highest-profile defender of for-profit education.

Together, Kaplan and the Post Company spent $350,000 on lobbying in the third quarter of this year, more than any other higher-education company. And Mr. Graham has gone to Capitol Hill to argue against the regulations in private visits with lawmakers, the first time he has lobbied directly on a federal issue in a dozen years.

His newspaper, too, has editorialized against the regulations. Though it disclosed its conflict of interest, the newspaper said the regulations would limit students’ choices. “The aim of the regulations was to punish bad actors, but the effect is to punish institutions that serve poor students,” Mr. Graham said in an interview.

He said the regulations’ emphasis on debt would make it harder for Kaplan to serve older working students who must take out loans to attend school.

He added that Kaplan could play an important role in meeting President Obama’s goal of a better-educated work force. Kaplan Higher Ed, Mr. Graham said, has also broadened the reach of the Post Company — beyond the middle-income students who typically use its test-prep services — to include lower-income students.

“We purchased colleges that served mostly poor students, and we have embraced that role,” Mr. Graham said. “For students with risk factors, older working students with children, Kaplan has dramatically better graduation rates than community colleges.”

The company has acknowledged, however, that the new rules could hurt Kaplan. According to 2009 data released this summer by the Department of Education, only 28 percent of Kaplan’s students were repaying their student loans. That figure is well below the 45 percent threshold that most programs will need to remain fully eligible for the federal aid on which they rely. By comparison, 44 percent of students at the largest for-profit, the University of Phoenix, were repaying their loans.

Kaplan is facing several legal challenges. The Florida attorney general is investigating eight for-profit colleges, including Kaplan, for alleged misrepresentation of financial aid and deceptive practices regarding recruitment, enrollment, accreditation, placement and graduation rates.

Kaplan is also facing several federal whistle-blower lawsuits whose accusations dovetail with the findings of an undercover federal investigation of the for-profit industry this summer, including video of high-pressure recruiting and unrealistic salary promises.

“The claims they make are absurd and simply not reflective of the kind of company that Kaplan is,” said Andrew S. Rosen, Kaplan’s chairman. “We’re confident that when a court rules, we’ll have a clear demonstration that this is not who Kaplan is.”

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THE NEW YORK TIMES

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