Exploiting consumers and exploiting consumer data were popular themes in the FTC’s October 30th workshop on lead generation, “Follow the Lead.” The day-long workshop explored the mechanics of lead generation and its role in the online marketplace. With a focus on the lending and education spaces, panelists discussed the many layers of marketing involved in lead generation—and importantly—how those many layers can add confusion to how consumer data gets collected, sold, used … and misused.
Panelists of the five workshop sessions hailed from industry, government, advocacy groups, and research institutions. They offered insights into both the vulnerabilities and opportunities flowing from the extensive “behind the scenes” market of lead generation. But unsurprisingly, the benefits of lead generation were overshadowed largely by attendant concerns: why is so much consumer data collected, what is done with it, and are consumers aware of how their personal information is being traded and used?
The workshop included two “case study” panels on lending and education. For the panel on lead generation in lending, Tim Madsen of PartnerWeekly provided an overview of how the “ping tree” model works. Connecting prospective borrowers with lenders through a reverse auction of borrower leads, the “ping tree” model may be an efficient way of matching borrowers and lenders. However, Pam Dixon, Executive Director of World Privacy Forum, highlighted her concerns that lenders are receiving consumer data that would otherwise be protected under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and therefore that the online process is circumventing important consumer protection laws. For instance, the online lending process may require certain personal information from borrowers in order filter fraudulent requests. But that personal information (e.g., gender or marital status) otherwise could not be part of the loan application process. Dixon felt the disclosure of protected information was one that needed to be addressed from both a technical and a policy standpoint. And it is an issue she raised on subsequent panels during the conference, indicating a possible pressure point for future regulatory action.
The panel on lead generation in education was highly charged, due to the controversial nature of marketing higher education and due to the negative attention on for-profit education. Despite many people’s assumption that online marketing in education is largely a tool of the for-profit education industry, Amy Sheridan, CEO of Blue Phoenix Media, provided some surprising statistics: state and private institutions represent roughly forty percent of her business in the education vertical. Even renowned schools like Harvard and Yale are employing lead generation to gain students in their programs.
But given the extensive access to federal funds through higher education, consumer advocates highlighted concerns over students being preyed upon by unscrupulous educators. Jeff Appel, Deputy Undersecretary of Education at the Department of Education, attributed the problem in part to the lack of underwriting in federal student loans. [Query: Wouldn’t it make sense to add underwriting to the federal student loan process? Statistically, private student loan repayment fares much better thanks to this preliminary screening.]
In support of responsible advertising for educational programs, Jonathan Gillman, CEO of Omniangle Technologies, identified the need for clear guidance on appropriate marketing tactics, which may better address problems than resorting to law enforcement. He pointed out the adverse consequences of clamping down on educators’ online advertising: educators are now afraid to advertise online and that space is being filled by affiliates who are more apt to cross the line into deceptive advertising.
Appel provided some general guidance for schools working with lead generators. Schools should (1) monitor how lead generators are representing programs and ensure their ads are not deceptive, (2) make sure payment for advertising does not implicate regulations against incentive-based compensation, and (3) be aware that the actions of lead generators may come under the Education Department’s purview if they are providing additional assistance (e.g., processing student applications).
Both Appel and consumer advocates seemed to agree, though, that laws and regulations already in place were sufficient to address consumer protection concerns in the education marketing space. It is only a matter of having the resources to enforce those laws and regulations. Appel also suggested that state regulators could curb issues by better screening schools.
Throughout the day and across the panels, FTC representatives turned to the concept of “remnant information,” i.e. consumer information that is longer being used. FTC attorney Katherine Worthman asked panelists various questions about what ultimately happens to this information. R. Michael Waller, another FTC attorney and panelist, noted his concern that companies have an economic interest in maintaining and possibly selling remnant information, and that such information is increasingly vulnerable to fraudsters. These FTC attorneys thus pressed about policies on consumer data retention. Aaron Rieke of Upturn supported the FTC concerns and noted that nothing in the company privacy policies (that he’s reviewed) prevents the sale of consumer data: “privacy policies are shockingly permissive when you look at how much information is being provided.”
Another popular issue was whether and to what extent disclosures to consumers are sufficient: are consumers aware of how their information is being traded? The general consensus among panelists was that consumers remained ignorant to the sale and use of the personal information they provide online.
Upshot from the workshop: Lead generators, and the companies using them, should be aware of the growing interest by federal regulators in (1) how consumer data is being collected, retained, and sold and (2) the extent to which people up and down the online marketing supply chain are vetting the buyers and sellers of consumer data. Other takeaways from the conference: Companies should ensure their data collection and retention policies comply with applicable state and federal law. Finally, it is important for companies to ensure their practices comply with both their policies and their disclosures.
For-profit education was dealt a major blow in a federal court case challenging the Department of Education’s Gainful Employment Rule. U.S. District Court Judge Lewis Kaplan of New York dismissed a lawsuit that was filed last November by the Association of Proprietary Colleges. The lawsuit is one of two filed in federal court shortly after the Department of Education issued its revised version of the Gainful Employment Rule. The second lawsuit, brought by the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, is still pending before a federal judge in D.C.
In his opinion, Judge Kaplan rejected APC’s arguments that the Gainful Employment Rule (1) violates colleges’ constitutional due process rights, (2) violates the plain language of the statute, exceeding statutory authority, and (3) is arbitrary and capricious. Kaplan held there could be no due process issues as for-profit colleges do not have a “vested right” to participate in federal student aid programs. He discounted as ill-conceived or misleading arguments that the rule exceeds statutory authority. And he dismissed APC’s allegations that the rule as drafted is arbitrary and capricious.
Judge Kaplan’s rejection of APC’s lawsuit is hailed as a victory by detractors of the for-profit education industry who are anxious to see the new rule implemented this July. Some project that Kaplan’s opinion will influence the direction of the pending federal case in D.C. But, despite these portents, the legal theories in the two suits are distinct enough that APSCU’s case should not be overshadowed. The APSCU’s suit centers on how and why the Gainful Employment Rule, as drafted, would disparately impact populations, identifying concern that the rule would “impose massive disincentives” on schools from recruiting “low-income, minority, and other traditionally underserved student populations, because, as an historical matter, those demographics are widely recognized as most at risk of failing the Department’s arbitrary test.”
The complaint also identifies concerns regarding the DoE’s rulemaking process, which it alleges was marred by “well-substantiated allegations of bias and misconduct that led several Members of Congress to accuse the Department of bad faith.” Perhaps it will not go without notice, the next opinion around, that the DoE’s proposed rule more than doubled in size at the 11th hour of the rulemaking process, flying in the face of the purpose of the public notice and comment period.
It is surprising to see so many consumer advocate groups cheering a marred process and pushing for standards that will have the effect of discouraging education opportunities for historically underserved low-income and minority students. It can’t be that their intentions are bad. It is more likely that detractors of for-profit education are narrowly focused on examples of bad actors in the field—that have been called out by authorities for predatory lending practices and misrepresenting the quality or results of their programs. Indeed the industry is not shy of regulators scrutinizing and penalizing bad practices. For-profit education has the likes of the SEC, CFPB, FTC, and a bevy of state attorneys general at the ready. You might think that those skeptical of for-profit education could look to the work done by these agencies and be satisfied that problems are being addressed.
While detractors breathlessly anticipate another judicial benediction of the DoE’s rulemaking, hopefully the next round of judicial opining will address not just the extent of the DoE’s statutory authority but also how the DoE can and should carry out its purpose. In the meantime, for-profit educators would do well to continue efforts to disseminate data that shows how they meet important needs that other schools do not and how their costs compare to actual costs of other schools (e.g., including data on taxpayer funding of community colleges). Perhaps many of the well-intentioned skeptics would be less anxious to see the end of the industry.
The last few years have been tough on the for-profit education industry – it’s not easy being the target of a host of federal and state investigations. For-profit educators have been poked and prodded by, among others, the U.S. Congress, a coalition of state attorneys general, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Federal and state authorities, who see the industry as predatory, seem determined to squeeze it out of the education industry. A draconian set of regulations, known as the Gainful Employment Rule, that were issued by the Department of Education last year may be just what it takes for these detractors to get their way.
Amidst tougher regulations and incessant government probes, already two large institutions have flat-lined. In June, Corinthian Colleges announced its imminent bankruptcy. At the end of August, Anthem Education said that it would be closing its doors. Declining enrollment numbers, costly investigations and rigorous regulations (with hefty compliance costs) have been too much for these colleges to withstand. And their pleas for assistance from the DoE have fallen on deaf ears – the DoE has agreed only to facilitate orderly dissolution (in the case of Corinthian Colleges) or partial-campus acquisition (in the case of Anthem).
The DoE and regulators may be toasting victory as these colleges fall like dominoes. But the result of their party is thousands of students left with unfinished degrees and fewer education opportunities. Corinthian Colleges enrolled students at over 100 campuses; Anthem at over 40. What are students who have not completed their degrees supposed to do? Credits are not always (or easily) transferrable. Some students may not have other local opportunities to complete their education.
One of the major benefits of for-profit colleges is that they have focused on providing education opportunities to underserved populations and non-traditional students. People like single parents or full time workers who may not have access to a campus or who can only take evening or online classes have found course programs that can accommodate their needs. But regulators haven’t seen these educators as opportunity-makers; rather, they see them as opportunists preying upon the underserved. Because these students generally fund their education through federal student loans, regulators think that for-profit education companies are merely using students as conduits to federal money. They use the fact that drop-out rates can be very high, or that post-graduate employment rates can be low to support their theory that for-profit educators are ruthless predators. But high drop-out rates and low employment rates can be tied to other factors. The very populations these colleges serve are ones that are at higher risk of dropping out: single moms and full-time workers may not be able or willing to maintain consistent enrollment. This is a reality that has explained similar problems at public colleges and universities that have also been plagued with high drop out rates for non-traditional students.
Unfortunately neither regulators nor regulations targeted at for-profit educators take these dynamics into account. For-profit campuses located outside military bases or in economically depressed areas used to be beacons of hope and opportunity. Now they are turning their lights out in these communities. No one wants to see poor students burdened with debt; but “protecting” underserved communities and non-traditional students by taking away education opportunities seems skewed. Regulators would do better to establish a reasonable set of metrics and limit the number of agencies swarming for-profit college campuses.