For-Profit Education

Sporadically, I teach a GRE prep course for Kaplan. I enjoy teaching the class – I like to think that by preparing students for the GRE, I am helping them to achieve their educational and career goals. I see improvement in my students over the course of the class, and I feel fairly confident that most, if not all, of my students benefit from the class. There is evidence that SAT prep classes may not be effective, but I don’t think anyone has conducted the kind of study (impact evaluation using randomized trials) that could really determine effectiveness. I am not aware of independent studies evaluating the effectiveness of GRE prep programs.

So, in general, I think the test prep wing of Kaplan offers a valuable service. However, Kaplan (like a number of other companies) has also moved into “for-profit” higher education. There are some serious problems with for-profit higher education. Those problems were highlighted for me recently when the Emory Kaplan Center gave me some of the flyers they were using to advertise their GRE classes. The flyers read, “More people get in to grad school with a Kaplan GRE course than with any other major course.” Later I found the same marketing claim on the Kaplan website. The statement is technically true. But I believe that Kaplan is intentionally using a technically true statement to create a false impression. At most, this fact indicates that Kaplan is the most popular of the major GRE prep companies. However, I believe the claim is worded in such a way as to create the impression that Kaplan is not just popular, but also effective. In that way, the claim is similar to the marketing claim on my box of Honey Nut Cheerios – “Big G Cereals Are America’s #1 Source of Whole Grain at Breakfast.”

Perhaps I’m naïve, but I think the purpose of higher education should be to teach students how to analyze technically true but potentially misleading statements like the one on my Cheerios box. Higher education should teach students to ask questions like: What kind of evidence would actually be required to show that Kaplan GRE courses are effective at improving test scores? This kind of education would prepare students to be intelligent, responsible public citizens, capable of evaluating competing claims made in the public sphere. Again, perhaps I’m naïve, but I think this remains the mission of non-profit higher education, despite the corporatization of the university. It is certainly not the mission of for-profit higher education, and that is precisely the problem.

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