Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Trade Schools Flunk Crucial PR Test with New York Times

Many Only Make Matters Worse in Scathing Front-Page Article

The article in Sunday's New York Times about the precarious mix of high debt and low pay for many students of for-profit colleges and trade schools was a real education.
Peter S. Goodman expertly pried the lid off of the often-unseemly recruiting practices of many schools, which left students awash in broken promises and mounting bills.
Let's hope that some of the schools mentioned use the piece as a cautionary tale, not for how to do right by their students -- although that would be a welcome byproduct -- but how not to turn into a quivering mass of gelatin when a reporter calls.

To wit, ITT Educational Services, one of the industry's top names, where a former financial aid officer told of risking the wrath of management if she told prospective students for computer and electronics trades about likely job prospects, which weren't good.

“If you said anything that went against what the recruiter said, they would threaten to fire you. The representatives would have already conned them into doing it, and you had to just keep your mouth shut.”

Offered an opportunity to reply, ITT's flackette demurred. And you know what that means for the average person reading the article: Guilty as charged.
A major opportunity to score brownie points was wasted, and proof of why a company of any size should have a crisis communications plan in place rather than diving for the bunker and acting clueless.
The same goes even when you do choose to cooperate with the media. Career Education Corp. spoke with Goodman, who focused on the experience of a former student at the company's Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Portland, Ore.
While the company wouldn't comment on that student, citing privacy concerns, it did send Goodman the names of other students to talk about their experiences. That's when the journalistic equivalent of a wet dream began.

One came with a wrong number. A second had graduated 15 years ago.
A third, Cherie Thompson, called the program “a really positive experience” but declined to discuss her debts or earnings. The fourth, Ericsel Tan, graduated in 2003 and later earned $42,000 a year overseeing catering at a convention center near Seattle. He said his success reflected his seven years of kitchen experience prior to culinary school.

Not exactly fodder for your testimonial page, huh? It's basically a reverse gotcha. Career Ed walked into an ambush of its own making, one that a few phone calls could have easily avoided.
Instead, kudos to Goodman, whose article may help steer students away from a life of big debts and small payoffs, while hopefully shaming these schools into doing more than just lining their pockets.

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