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Heather Vogell, an investigative reporter writing for ProPublica and USA Today, reports that for-profit schools are handing out rewards to students who recruit other students or post positive reviews on Facebook. This practice shows the difference between a business—where the bottom line is profit—and a school, which is dedicated to education and human development.
“Lyla Elkins transferred to North Nicholas High School in Cape Coral, Florida, in 2016 with hopes of sailing through its computer-based courses and graduating early. She didn’t realize the for-profit charter school would also be a source of income: a $25 gift card each time she persuaded a new student to enroll.
“I referred almost all of my friends,” said Elkins, 17, who earned three gift cards. She also won a Valentine’s Day teddy bear in a raffle for sharing one of the school’s Facebook posts.
“Such incentives are rampant among for-profit operators of public alternative high schools like North Nicholas, which serves students at risk of dropping out. These schools market aggressively to attract new students, especially during weeks when the state is tallying enrollment for funding purposes. They often turn their students into promoters, dangling rewards for plugs on social media, student referrals or online reviews, a ProPublica-USA Today investigation found. Some also offer valuable perks simply for enrolling.
“The schools’ reality is often less inspiring than their promotions. While they face a daunting mission of salvaging students who struggled elsewhere, they’re characterized by high absenteeism, low graduation rates, little instruction from teachers and few extracurricular activities or elective classes. Their intensive recruitment, when coupled with poor outcomes, “is wrong on so many levels,” said Samuel E. Abrams, a professor at Columbia Teachers College and author of a 2016 book on for-profit education. “It’s not addressing the pedagogical needs of these kids.”
“It’s legal for schools to provide gift cards to students for referrals, and free electronic devices, such as tablets or computers, to newcomers. And students are free to express their opinions on their schools. But advertisements have less protection under the First Amendment, and some for-profit school promotions involving online posts or reviews may violate federal consumer safeguards.
“According to the Federal Trade Commission, companies that use students and other groups as social media marketers should instruct them to disclose publicly that they expect to be paid. In settlements with the FTC, companies that failed to encourage such disclosures have agreed to follow the law — or face a potential penalty of up to $40,000 per transgression. Those instances didn’t involve students.”
For-profit companies have no shame in exploiting their students to lure more students.
“Refer-a-friend programs like the one at North Nicholas are common in the sector. “Bring a friend into Mavericks!” said one 2015 Facebook post for a Palm Springs school in the for-profit Florida charter chain. “They will get help getting their diploma and you will get a gift card.” The post promised a $5 gift card for each referral as part of the “Friends & Family Club,” as long as the recipient had acceptable attendance and no disciplinary problems.
“Mavericks’ new parent company, EdisonLearning, hands out Walmart gift cards for student referrals at its “Bridgescape” schools in Illinois and Ohio. It posted pictures on Facebook this past spring of students displaying their prizes. EdisonLearning officials said the gift cards enable low-income students to buy essentials.”