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For-Profit College Opens New Campus in Maine
10/03/2012   Reported By: Jay Field

One of the nation's fastest-growing, for-profit colleges, Kaplan University, marked the opening of its new campus in Augusta today at an event featuring Gov. Paul LePage and businesses leaders. The school offers a mix of online and flexibly-scheduled, on-campus courses, leading to career-focused degrees in areas like Medical Assisting, Paralegal Studies, Business Administration and Accounting. In recent years, state investigations, lawsuits and a congressional probe have targeted Kaplan's recruiting and marketing policies and the amount of debt its students accrue. But, as Jay Field reports, supporters are convinced the university is taking steps to move past its problems and poised to play a key role in providing skilled employees to Maine's workforce over the next decade.

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A few years ago, Taya Harmon's parents moved from South Charleston, West Virginia, to Maine. Harmon followed them north after graduating high school in 2009, and got a job.

"I actually work at a gas station," she says. "I am a cashier at the Circle K down here on - what is it? - Civic Center Drive. I've been doing that for a year and its getting pretty old."

Harmon decided to go to school to become a medical assistant. It's an in-demand position in one of Maine's fastest-growing fields, health care. But she couldn't afford to enroll in college full-time and desperately needed to keep bringing in that two hundred bucks a week down at the Circle K.

"Kaplan was really good about setting the schedules for me so I could do both and not lose any hours, pay my bills on time. Only here until 2:45, twice a week, and I'm still getting a degree," she says.

"Here" is not some leafy, red-brick campus, like the University of Maine at Augusta nearby. For Harmon, and increasing numbers of students in Maine and across the country, going to college means going to the mall, literally. Dr. Wade Dyke is Kaplan University's president.

"We have 17 sites around the country and this one represents our best," says Dyke, who helped christen the school's new, nearly 20,000-square-foot campus on the site of a former Staples store on Marketplace Drive - across from Barnes and Noble, the Regal Augusta 10 Cinema and Dick's Sporting Goods.

Dyke says Taya Harmon and the 200 other students already enrolled in classes here represent just a tiny fraction of the workers the state will need to produce in the coming years. "In the next 10 years, Maine will need 40,000 trained graduatues to replace retirees," he says. "The opportunities are there, if the training is there. It's a big challenge for all of us. It's a big challenge for Maine."

The Augusta students - and the thousand or so enrolled at Kaplan's locations in Lewiston and South Portland - are going after associates' and bachelors' degrees in business administration, accounting, criminal justice, paralegal studies, medical assisting and early childhood development. Since he took office, Gov. Paul LePage has made expanding career and technical education in Maine a top priority.

"It's Kaplan University, and schools like Kaplan, who are giving us options, who are working with the workforce, who are working with businesses in Maine, and can turn on a dime," he says. "They can meet the needs much, much quicker than established, long-term universities."

LePage has been critical of what he sees as an overemphasis on four-year college degrees in Maine, at the expense of post-secorndary education that's more targeted and career focused.

Business leaders joined the governor in Augusta to sing Kaplan's praises. Noticably absent, were any big-name Democrats. Kevin Kinser, who studies for-profit colleges, says that's not a surprise. Kinser is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Administration and Policy Studies at the State University of New York at Albany.

"Democrats are much more likely to think the industry needs broad regulation in order to control some of the worst behavior that's been occurring, whereas Republicans are much more interested in talking about their role in providing access to students, their role in developing students for the workforce, for the labor market," Kinser says.

Over the summer, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Labor, Education and Pensions released the results of a two-year investigation of the for-profit, higher education sector. The report looked at 30 companies, including Kaplan, and found, among other things, that they engaged in predatory recruiting practices and charged high tuition, which was often paid for by federally-backed student loans.

Kinser says it's not entirely clear yet what students are getting for all the debt they're accruing to get these degrees.

"We don't have very good data on the actual outcomes of the education in terms of what jobs students are getting, whether the education is increasing their salary, sufficient to justify the costs that they're paying," he says. "What we do know is that students tend to default on their loans more who attend for-profit institutions. And we know that they end up taking out more in loans for for-profit institutions."

Earlier this year, Kaplan produced its own report, showing its graduates are reporting more promotions and raises upon completion of their studies. But Kinser and other academics say there needs to be a much broader base of research on whether the education at for-profit colleges is worth the financial risks they're incuring to get their degrees.


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