Lee Bollinger may be the president of Columbia, but that’s not the only school he’s affiliated with. Bollinger is also a member of the board of directors at the company which owns the Kaplan schools and some Columbia students are taking issue with his affiliation with these for-profit schools.
The Kaplan Inc. schools have been criticized for using abusive recruiting tactics, not graduating enough students, and leaving its students with massive amounts of debt. The Columbia University Democrats started a petition last week urging Bollinger to use his power on the board of the Washington Post Company to demand changes at Kaplan, or else resign from the board.
"They [Kaplan] spend 20 percent of their budgets on advertising and markets and target people who are vulnerable, who are mentally and physically abused, people recently unemployed, people who just got out of jail, and they incite pain and fear, they tell them if you don’t do this, if you don’t sign up for school and take out these loans, your life will be miserable. They force them into enrolling when they aren’t ready," said Michael Rady, CC ’13, a lead activist with the CU Dems.
Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has been conducting an investigation of for-profit colleges, Kaplan included. He recently cited Kaplan training materials telling recruiters to “keep digging” to uncover prospective students’ fears.
The Washington Post Company is best known for its signature newspaper, but Kaplan Inc. is its biggest asset. The subsidiary earned over $250 million in 2009, more than half of the Post Company’s profit that year.
“The vast majority of Kaplan students don’t graduate, one in three can’t repay their loans, and they are unaware that they can get the same degree for four of the cost at a community college, this is the disadvantage of the disadvantaged,” said Sarah Gitlin, CC ’12, and a lead activist for the College Democrats.
A Columbia spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment. Asked about his affiliation with Kaplan at a fireside chat last week, Bollinger said only that there have been controversies surrounding for-profit universities, and that the issue of profit’s role in higher education is one worth discussing.
A spokesperson for the Washington Post Company declined to comment.
“We would rather him stand up to make a change, rather than step down,” Rady said. “The other two major figures on the board, Melinda Gates, has already stepped down from the board, and Warren Buffett, is in the process of doing so, and so Lee Bollinger is the last major figure on the board to push for change. If it comes down to it that he cannot change the situation than we would support him resigning from his position on the board.”
He added that Bollinger is the only one on the board with a background in education.
The CU Democrats’ petition says that “Kaplan exploits the poor, the vulnerable, and the taxpayer to enrich itself.” As of Monday night, the petition had over 580 signers, some of whom are alumni.
“We have been contacted by alumni who have said they were about to give Columbia money, but didn’t after hearing about the affiliation to Kaplan,” Gitlin said.
Stephen Snowder, GS ’13 and an army veteran who signed the petition, said the issue was important to him because for-profit schools target vulnerable students, like himself.
“They tell people like me, just getting out of the army, we will get you a degree, but people aren’t getting jobs because people don’t take these educations seriously,” Snowder said. “They are just trying to get as much money from you as possible. Something about this is very worrisome.”
Melissa Itzkowitz, BC ’13, said she was troubled by Bollinger’s ties to the organizations.
“I think its ridiculous that someone who has so much power at Columbia, as Lee Bollinger does, would be affiliated with something that supports such an institution—where only one out of eight students graduate but a ton can’t pay back their loans,” she said. “If he has the power to make a change or make a difference why wouldn’t he want to do so?”
The College Democrats are reaching out to other organizations on campus, including the Columbia University Republicans and Teachers College.
“This is an injustice that goes across party lines, we would be enthusiastic to get involved with the Columbia Republicans. Same goes to other groups,” said Jake Goldwasser,CC ’14, a lead activist for the Dems.
Marybeth Sietz-Brown, CC ’14, a lead activist for the College Democrats, said the group has been trying to arrange a meeting with Bollinger but have yet to succeed.
“We are really passionate about education, so it was crazy that there was one person tied to two universities who are so different,” Sietz-Brown said. “We would like him to help protect those students the way we know he would protect us.”