The Washington Times - July 20, 2011, 12:17PM

Senator Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat and Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), is holding a full committee hearing on Thursday regarding for-profit higher education policy solutions. Mr. Harkin’s hearing is happening at a time when Department of Education’s “gainful employment” rule was recently published amid DoEd  Inspector General investigations about the crafting of the rule itself. 

Prior the publishing of the GE rule the DoED established this summer, a HELP hearing included a number of witnesses who berated the for-profit school industry including Wall Street hedge fund manager Steve Eisman whose vocal support of the GE rule was always questionable given the financial benefits via short selling that he would walk away with if the GE rule became established policy, and Eric Schmitt an Iowa resident who attended a Kaplan University school for paralegal studies.

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I have written extensively about Mr. Eisman in the past, but up until this point, I have never made a reference to Mr. Schmitt’s June 7, 2011 testimony. Many supporters of the GE rule will hold up Mr. Schmitt as a perfect example of how the for-profit school industry is ripping off the students it claims to serve. 

According to histestimony, he graduated from Kaplan with an Associate degree and Bachelor’s of Science in Paralegal Studies with an emphasis in Personal Injury. Mr. Schmitt felt compelled to tell his story to the committee “after taking on $45,000 in student loans and spending years job-hunting without success.”

However, according to a statement from Kaplan that was placed in the Congressional record, Mr. Schmitt’s own statements about his experience at Kaplan from a student survey he filled out appears to paint a completely different picture than what Mr. Schmitt testified about last June.  

Mr. Schmitt, a 27-year old married father of two children at the time in 2002, was not only an on campus student at Kaplan but also took classes online there as well. He is particularly critical of his experience at Kaplan. Here is part of his testimony below: (Bolding is mine)

 I worked overnights and went to school in the evening. My experience in class at Kaplan was relatively smooth with the exception of the difficulty I had finding the classes I needed to graduate. The same introductory classes were always being offered, but upper level classes required for my degree were pushed off. After putting up a petition to appeal to the administration to offer the advanced classes, such as law office management, in a classroom format, as opposed to self-study, I spoke to the Dean about this issue.

I was chided for the tone of my petition. I explained to him that I wanted to learn in a classroom environment because I wanted these skills, not just a letter grade. The Dean responded that they needed to keep these introductory classes on the schedule to handle the influx of new enrollees. I pointed out that some of us needed this class and other advanced classes in order to graduate. Since my protests had no effect on the schedule, I adapted and took the class through an independent study, meeting once a week with an instructor for an hour.

During this conversation, the Dean learned of my interest in law school, He told me about that I could get my law degree online with an affiliated school, Concord University. It seemed, with a few hiccups, that Kaplan could provide everything I needed to fulfill my dream of practicing law. I was sure with my grades and references that I would have no difficulties finding a job after graduation.

My associate degree track required an externship. Ideally I wanted to get a paying job that would satisfy the externship and began applying to local businesses early in my second year. I used job specific and non-targeted resumes to apply to every law office in the Waterloo and Cedar Falls area. I only had one response when a law office staff secretary who was leaving her job recognized me from Kaplan, forwarded my resume to her boss as a possible replacement.

I was not hired. I finally went to my Program Chair who did help me find an attorney I could take my externship through, although it was unpaid. My externship was a less than rewarding experience. I quickly learned that my supervising attorney was gaining a reputation as an unreliable and unethical member of the bar and I felt it necessary to distance myself from him.

In 2004 I graduated with an associate degree in paralegal studies. I had a 3.76 GPA, I was the President of the Law Club and had the recommendation of most of my instructors. Upon graduating, I continued my job search. I hoped that since I now had my Associate of Applied Science degree, my job search would be more productive.

This did not turn out to be the case. I wanted to get a jump on finding a job so a few months before graduation I began applying to every posting related to my field I saw, in both the public sector and the private sector. I also contacted other employers even if they did not advertise open jobs including law offices, banks, credit unions, and even bail bond offices. After applying to a position or a business, I would contact them once or twice a week until the position had been filled or that I was notified there were no open positions. I never received a call back for an interview.

The school’s Career Services didn’t seem prepared or able to help me. I stopped into the office on campus a few times, but always seemed to get contradictory or confusing resume tips from them.

Career Services would frequently send out emails notifying graduates of jobs being offered that I had seen on Iowa Workforce Development or in the Waterloo Courier. These were jobs postings I could apply to on my own instead of driving to the school.

I struggled to find any work with my degree so I took a four month unpaid internship. I knew there was no chance of being hired, but I wanted to improve my likelihood of being picked up elsewhere. I hoped a credible reference would help. In early June 2005 with my unemployment running out I finally settled for a job doing inbound customer service. This was the very field I went to get an education in order to escape.

In late 2005 I received a letter from Kaplan that they were now offering their Bachelor of Science in the Paralegal Studies program on campus via the “School within a School” program.

School within a School meant that the online class format was still used, but there was a seminar for one hour per week on campus or via conference call. In early 2006 I enrolled, eager to continue my education since I assumed it had to have been my fault that I never received an interview. I also wanted desperately to leave the customer service industry and I thought that a four-year degree would better help me do that. The School within a School program, I don’t believe, even lasted a full year into my Bachelor’s program. The campus seminars were abruptly ended without explanation or acknowledgment.

I continued at Kaplan in a fully online education environment. I could have tried to transfer, but I had heard from many sources that Kaplan credits rarely transferred. The most important bit of knowledge I gained during this time was from a one-term adjunct instructor, who, when I told her of my plan to continue my education through Concord Law School, informed me that the school was not recognized in Iowa for taking the BAR exam. That information was eye opening. The Dean apparently didn’t know or forgot to mention this little problem with Concord.

I continued on and graduated in 2008 with a 3.16 GPA. Since getting my Baccalaureate degree, I have had one temporary job using it, which lasted two weeks. I have applied to every opening I have

found through my continued an ongoing search. I have sent my resume far and wide. I volunteered and I took on another internship to make more connections and build references. I took on temporary work with the 2010 Decennial Census, which was rewarding but didn’t much to do with my field of study. Since then my choices for work have been an assembly line laborer in a pesticide plant, a flagger on road construction for the season, or other temporary work.

So what is the end of my Kaplan “success story”? I cannot say that even once my degree has opened any doors of employment for me. I slowly learned what most employers really thought of Kaplan degrees and graduates. I had heard rumors and horror stories all through my education that once Kaplan was done with you they really didn’t care what kind of job you found. There were stories of graduates who never found work, and that if you tried to transfer that most other colleges refused to accept the credit hours.

Kaplan’s response to Mr. Schmitt’s testimony is interesting as it goes into not only the high marks that Mr. Schmitt gave Kaplan in the student survey but also the permanent job that Mr. Schmitt accepted as a result of his externship : (all bolding is mine)

Today, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions heard testimony from a former Kaplan student who has had difficulty finding employment after receiving Associate’s and Bachelor’s degrees in paralegal training.  The faculty, staff and administrators at Kaplan care about each one of our graduates and sympathize with the difficulties this student has faced. At the same time, it appears that this student’s testimony is not an accurate reflection of his experience—nor does it at all reflect our students’ overall experience, in Iowa or nationally.  

First, the student today characterized his Kaplan-arranged 2004 externship experience as a “less than rewarding experience.” That contrasts quite sharply with what this student wrote on a student survey at the time of his externship.  At that time, asked “What portion of your externship experience was most beneficial to you?” he answered:  “The most beneficial experience was seeing what a paralegal really does.”  Asked “What portion of your externship experience was least beneficial to you?” he answered:  “Can’t help you.  I have found it all very beneficial.”  Asked “What changes would you recommend to the externship program at the College?” he answered:  “None.  The externship program works reasonably well as is.”  

In today’s testimony, this student fails to acknowledge that, in fact, he received and accepted a permanent offer of employment from the firm with which he had his externship.  This student then resigned from this job. 

Putting the student’s own experience aside, the experience of other students in his class was decidedly different.  Of the others who did not continue their education beyond the Associates degree, 13 of 16 were placed.  In fact, the latest overall job placement rate for all programs at the Cedar Falls, Iowa campus is 94 percent.

 Mr. Schmitt’s difficulties in finding employment result from several factors. First, is the fact that he lives in a town of 4,200 that is not itself a legal center, and that he has apparently not applied for any of the significant number of paralegal positions  within commuting distance of his home, much less in Des Moines, where the largest share of such jobs in the state are located.

 In fact, this witness has told us (and the H.E.L.P. committee staff) that he can only recall five paralegal vacancies for which he has applied since receiving his Bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies in 2008.  

Second, unfortunately this student has not availed himself of the services of the Kaplan Cedar Falls career services office during this period.  Had he done so the office could have directed him to the 152 paralegal vacancies that have existed in Iowa during the last six months—many within commuting distance of his home.

(Source:  Careerbuilder.com survey, which notes that there have been only 1.7 job seekers per opening.)  The career services office at Kaplan Cedar Falls is available to all graduates throughout their careers, and it remains prepared at any time to assist this witness in finding employment should he wish to avail himself of that assistance 

As we have said before: we welcome a serious national discussion around student debt that is grounded in fact, and seeks solutions across the full scope of higher education.

Mr. Schmitt’s testimony received much attention in higher education circles and only added to the “drowning in debt” battle cry but Kaplan’s response received little or no press. His story sounds sympathetic indeed, as do many stories about unemployed Americans who are searching for various ways to make themselves stand out in a competitive job market. 

Apparently, Kaplan has a document where Mr. Schmitt wrote statements vastly different than his own testimony before Mr. Harkin’s committee. If this is the case and if Mr. Schmitt was not telling the truth about his experience at Kaplan in front of the Senate HELP committee back in June, he may have new problems to add to in his life along with his unemployment and student debt issues.