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For-profit schools try to talk a better game

Amy Scott Mar 12, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: A reminder today from the world of marketing. A big part of selling something is just the way you talk about it. It’s not a tax increase if you call it a “revenue enhancer.” It’s not a down day on Wall Street — it’s a “buying opportunity.”

Along those lines, for-profit colleges are trying to change their image by changing their language. From the Marketplace Education Desk at WYPR in Baltimore, Amy Scott reports.

Amy Scott: The campaign was dubbed “Project Rose,” as in Shakespeare’s “a rose by any other name.” The Chronicle of Higher Education got its hands on the plan. The for-profit college industry’s main trade group was pushing members to lose the business jargon and speak like educators. Instead of “parent company,” try “university system.” “Recruiter?” How ‘bout “counselor?” And my favorite: a “piece of business” should be called an “applicant.”

Kevin Kinser: It wasn’t until too long ago that people really thought “for-profit” in general was antithetical to education.

Kevin Kinser teaches higher education policy at the University at Albany. Kinser says for-profit colleges have been working to shed the image of an industry focused on high enrollment above all else. Schools like the University of Phoenix and Kaplan have been accused of leaving students with lots of debt and degrees of questionable value.

Communications consultant Michael Maslanksy says other industries have played with words to repair their reputations. Remember “used cars”?

Michael Maslansky: Now you buy a pre-owned vehicle, and it’s had a full kind of review and makeover. It’s been tested. And so, the language changed, but so did the industry.

The for-profit college industry is changing too — not exactly by choice. Recruiters — pardon me — counselors can no longer be paid commissions for signing up students, and some schools offer free trials to weed out students who are less likely to succeed.

I’m Amy Scott for Marketplace.

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