The Trials of Kaplan Higher Ed and the Education of The Washington Post Co.

Eleven years ago, one of Washington’s most tradition-bound companies placed a bet that would transform its fortunes.

The wager, by The Washington Post Co. and its Kaplan division, took the form of a $165 million purchase of an Atlanta-based chain of for-profit vocational schools that catered to low-income students.

The bet was big — the price equal to the profits earned that year by The Post Co.’s print-media pillars: this newspaper and Newsweek magazine. So was the payoff.

The acquisition of the firm, called Quest Education, turbocharged the rise of Kaplan, a modest business that had until then mainly prepared students for standardized tests.

Today, Kaplan is a multinational, multibillion-dollar enterprise with 70 campuses and nearly 100,000 students, many of them online, many of them reliant on government aid. This newspaper, meanwhile, has struggled to remain profitable amid dramatic changes in the news industry. Newsweek was sold. The Post Co. now calls itself an education and media company — no longer the other way around.

But what proved a deftly timed business move brought other, less welcome scrutiny to a family-run company that had long prided itself in serving the public interest.

The Education Department is now imposing stringent new conditions on the federal student loans that have become the lifeblood of for-profit schools, including Kaplan. Heavy lobbying keeps pushing back the release date of one especially controversial proposal, but other regulations are already biting: Last week, many traditional colleges mailed acceptances to their picks from among record numbers of applicants; Kaplan’s new enrollments, by contrast, have plunged by nearly half.

“We’re trying to walk a fine line to make sure the good actors are supported and bad actors can’t take advantage of people trying to better their lives,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan told department employees last week, according to a report in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

“We are very, very close.”

As damaging as the new rules could be, Kaplan is also reeling from a storm of criticism of the industry’s practices and of The Post Co., an institution more accustomed to publishing news of others’ foibles.

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