An early October investigation by ProPublica shows how for-profit secondary schools incentivize their students to refer their friends for enrollment.
ProPublica reporter Heather Vogell opened an article on the subject with the story of 17-year old Lyla Elkins, who’d transferred to the private North Nicholas High School in Cape Coral, FL, in 2016.
Elkins had wanted to take computer courses and aspired to graduate early. The apparently ambitious student hadn’t realized that North Nicholas also provided opportunities for its students to earn – the teenager was told she’d receive a $25 gift card for each friend she convinced to enroll.
“I referred almost all of my friends,” said Elkins, who received three gift cards.
The 17-year old also won a Valentine’s Day teddy bear in a raffle after sharing one of the school’s Facebook posts on social media.
Such incentivizing, Vogell writes, is typical of for-profit secondary schools, many of which serve students at risk of dropping out or not graduating on time. They turn their pupils into promoters, promising presents and rewards for those who make enrollment referrals, write positive reviews online, or simply share stories and posts on social media.
Despite their aggressive marketing tactics, such institutions don’t often fare well in terms of academics. Rates of absenteeism are high in the private classrooms. Graduations are still infrequent, and teachers provide little in the way of instruction or extracurricular activities.
Such intensive recruitment – coupled with abysmal outcomes – is “wrong on so many levels,” said Samuel E. Abrams, a professor at Columbia Teachers College. “It’s not addressing the pedagogical needs of these kids.”
In the past, the Federal Trade Commission has made it mandatory that groups using students or other groups for social media promotion require they be instructed to disclose they’re being paid for their endorsements.
“Basically, the law says if it’s an ad, consumers need to be able to clearly and conspicuously see it’s an ad,” said Bonnie Patten, executive director of nonprofit watchdog Truth in Advertising. “For a group of unsophisticated teenage kids, the onus is definitely on the company to require them to disclose their material connection.”
Most of the incidences of student promotions uncovered and described by Vogell ran afoul of the FTC’s mandates and Patten’s considerations.
Few of the social media posts prompting pupils to share stories of success or invitations to pizza parties and other recruitment events instructed students to disclose they’re being paid to advertise.