LEWISTON — When numbers came out showing former Andover College students had among the highest student-loan default rates in Maine, it got the attention of college officials.
According to the Finance Authority of Maine, 22 percent of former students defaulted on their government student loans in 2007. In 2008, the latest year for which data are available, the rate was 18.1 percent.
Andover College became Kaplan University in 2010. Kaplan, a for-profit university, has campuses in Lewiston and Portland, with some 600 students at each campus.
The default numbers created a "crisis,” said Christopher Quinn, president of Kaplan University for Maine. Andover College became Kaplan University, part of a national chain, in 2010.
“The government is one of the most understanding lenders," Quinn said. "It's crazy that this number of students have defaulted on their debt.”
The national trend of higher default rates at for-profits holds true in Maine. Statewide, the average student loan default rate was 6.6 percent in 2008, slightly better than the national rate of 7 percent.
But for-profits had higher percentages of former students not paying back loans, according to FAME. Former students of the University of Maine in Orono had default rates of 3.2 percent and 3.8 percent; the University of Southern Maine had 4 percent and 4.2 percent; and Bates College, less than 1 percent and 1.1 percent for 2008 and 2007, respectively.
While for-profit higher education institutions are coming under fire for having higher default rates, Quinn said it's not about who's for-profit or who's not; it's more about the low-income students they serve.
His university is advancing opportunities for some who might not otherwise go to college, Quinn said. Other institutions serving poor populations also have high rates. And Kaplan is not in control of who pays back their loans. he said.
“This is not a measure of program quality," Quinn said. "We don't control the lending standards; the government does. We know who's delinquent. We proactively reach out to students and ask, 'What's going on?'”
Kaplan has taken a hard look at which former students are not paying back loans. “One of the key things we found was nearly 90 percent of them were dropouts, not graduates," Quinn said. "That was very telling.” Those students typically stayed only a few semesters and left with debt.
Andover, then Kaplan, changed its policies.
Open enrollment gone
It used to be that students were enrolled if they had a high school diploma or a GED certificate, Quinn said. “We had many students who needed remediation ... Many of those students were the very same who, after a few terms, dropped out. So, we shifted our tack.”
About two years ago, the school introduced a pre-enrollment screening exam and a higher threshold for admittance. “This was a major shift for us,” Quinn said. “It changed the open-enrollment model.”
Students who score below a certain number are turned away and referred to adult education programs to help them get ready for college courses, Quinn said. Those who score above are admitted. Some who score near the edge are granted conditional enrollment.
“We use the first term to assess their academic readiness,” he said. “The rules are that after your first term, you need to have demonstrated ability of scoring at least a C.” Students who don't are dismissed.
In addition, the university tries to ensure that students don't fall behind. Weekly retention meetings are held to talk about all of the students "by name,” Quinn said.
If a student misses one class, the professor calls him or her. If they miss two classes, the academic adviser calls, he said.
That might sound like high school, Quinn acknowledged, but Kaplan offers concentrated, 10-week terms. If you miss twice, you've missed 10 percent of the curriculum.That's tough to make up, he said.
“The reality is, you've got students who've been out of school 10 years or more," he said. "Some have no college experience. We want to help them to be motivated to achieve the goal they set out to.”
In January, Kaplan instituted another change.
Grades are reviewed for first-time students halfway through their first semester. Five weeks into their 10-week term, if they're not achieving at least 65 percent, they are dismissed, with no tuition due, Quinn said. "No loans are involved. We'll even take back the textbooks.”
It's tough to know which students will be motivated to do the work, he said. “Until you sit in the classroom and start responding to assignments, people cannot necessarily fully know what they're getting into.”
All of the new policies will help improve Kaplan's default rate, Quinn said, but he worries about the students they're turning away. He hopes they don't give up on higher education.
It will take a while for the default numbers to improve, he said. Default rates reported in 2007 and 2008 were for students who left two years before that.
“There's a significant look-back period,” Quinn said. After students graduate or leaves, they're given a six-month grace period before loan payments are due, then another year before defaulting.
Kaplan's costs, which are higher than public community college, is not part of the problem, Quinn said. He praised his university as offering “a tremendous educational value.”
It costs $11,500 a year for a full-time student. That's $23,000 for a two-year associate degree. The cost includes tuition, fees and books. At Central Maine Community College, the cost is $4,590 for one year (tuition, fees and books); $9,180 for an associate degree for in-state students.
Kaplan offers small classes and plenty of hands-on help to help students avoid getting lost in the system, Quinn said. “We have a great faculty, a great curriculum. We have a level of student service.”
Kaplan's job-placement rate among graduates is high, he said. Eighty-two percent of the Class of 2009 is employed in their fields of study. The numbers are verified with employers, Quinn said.
Two employers who work with Kaplan students told the Sun Journal they are pleased with their hires.
“Any Kaplan students I've had here are wonderful,” said Karen Cowan of Franklin Health in Farmington, where Kaplan medical-assistant students work with doctors and nurses to get job experience while in school.
Cowan said she had problems with some students not showing up when it was Andover College. “I had to call the school and ask them not to come back.” But she has had no such problems with Kaplan students, she said. “I have nothing but praise for them.”
Sue Hughes at Dr. Robert Sylvester's office in Lewiston said her office also works with and hires Kaplan students. She said she was pleased with how students are prepared.
“We have a very busy practice," Hughes said. "We see over 100 patients a day.” Kaplan students and graduates are “well-trained in their clinical knowledge.”