Education-worshipping Americans are flocking to online and in-person schools in hopes of landing a job or getting a better one but they may just be chasing the imaginary pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, said a New York Times expose Nov. 10.

Since PR circles are currently flooded with post graduate programs running to $35K-$40K and endless seminars, webinars, “boot camps” and other programs that may cost $1,000 or more, we recommend this article to all those seeking to improve their lot via “education.”

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NYT mostly targeted a chief competitor—the Washington Post.

Federal and state investigations of the Kaplan University part of WP and other for-profit schools have helped cut 25% from WP’s stock price since the spring (falling from $541 on April 15 to $388 on Nov. 12). Kaplan’s revenues rose 9% in Q3 to $743 million.

Kaplan grads who ran up huge debts studying “criminal justice” found they mostly got jobs as plant guards at $8-$9 an hour that they could have obtained anyway, says one of the complaints.

Four “whistle-blower” suits filed under the federal False Claims Act charge Kaplan illegally paid recruiters of students, kept students on its books after they dropped out, inflated students’ grades, and provided false placement data to continue receiving aid.

Kaplan officials said they rectified any abuses as soon as they found out about them and the school has a new program that allows students to “try out” courses for 4-5 weeks before enrolling.

Targets of the schools were said to be the naďve and uneducated—those who were already on public assistance, or were fired or laid off, or had just gotten out of jail.

Government loans to students totaled $26.5 billion last year and much of this will not be repaid, said NYT.

Kaplan Higher Education gets 91.5% of its income from government programs but only 28% of loan recipients were paying them in 2009, said the Dept. of Education.

The Government Accountability Office used undercover videos this summer to document charges that some schools use high-pressure in recruiting students and promise unrealistic salaries.

Investigate Before Enrolling

I don’t think all PR education is bad. The in-person courses give jobseekers a chance to network and build up inside knowledge about a PR specialty or PR in general.

But before shelling out money, and especially tens of thousands of dollars, prospective students should do some research.

Some lessons can be learned from my experience.

After four years as a police, labor and civic affairs reporter at the Bridgeport, Conn., Telegram, I sought a job at a New York newspaper as a financial writer.

Since I worked evenings, I occupied myself during the day by hanging out at a local stock brokerage. A fellow reporter got me interested in stocks and I purchased some.

I was caught up by the amount of information and statistics available and became a stock market buff.

I looked for schools that taught financial reporting and found such a program at UCLA.

Next step was asking New York financial editors if this was the right way to go.

New York Journal-American financial editor Leslie Gould said it was a terrible idea and that financial reporting could only be learned by doing it.

Since I was interested in the market and could show him a bundle of bylined clips, he gave me a job.

What We Learned at the “J-A”

Gould was known as the “Cop of Wall Street” who outed many an abusive practice.

One ongoing expose was printing each day the “real” prices for the OTC market. The published prices might give the asked price as $4 and the bid price as $3.50 when the real spread was $3.70 to $3.80. Buyers and sellers got cheated either way because of the bogus quotes.

His investigations (helped by me and others) led to the resignation of most of the board of the American Stock Exchange.

Gould sent us to many an annual meeting to look for dissidents.

These were often major stockholders or former executives who had inside knowledge of the company and its competitors and were eager to work with the press.

Armed with this info and SEC documents where companies could lie only at great peril, Gould was able to do numerous exposes whether or not the company talked to him.

Lessons for PR Jobseekers

After two years as a financial reporter Gould picked me to do the daily ad column, a job that lasted four years until the demise of the paper in 1966.

Two big ad agencies, Young & Rubicam and Doyle Dane Bernbach, then offered me jobs as their PR directors at double my J-A salary.

Ad agency (real) friends urged us to do no such thing, saying PR directors had low status in the ad agencies and the jobs were highly “political” (meaning a new CEO would bring in his or her own person for the post).

DDB principal Mack Dane took me to lunch at the Princeton Club to make the offer but I couldn’t forget that this was the same Mack Dane who had a J-A executive pull my scoop about a big new account of the firm. DDB was about to go public and Dane did not want any news coming out. A secretary of the J-A executive marched up to the financial desk and removed the story I had placed in the “in” box while the rest of the financial reporting staff looked on in amazement.

Dane never allowed any of the afternoon papers to have a DDB scoop. If such a reporter called him up to check facts, he would notify the NYT and Herald-Tribune so they wouldn’t be scooped.

At Y&R, I was courted with lunches and tours of the agency capped off by an interview with the CEO who said my job would be to “keep the press out of my hair.”

A PR firm head who was a true friend had his law firm draw up corporate papers for a new company that I launched with Ed Buxton, a former creative director of J. Walter Thompson. It assumed publication of Ad Daily and I worked on it for two years, including doing a PR section, before starting the O’Dwyer NL in 1968.

PR jobseekers and careerists not only need to query potential employers but also need trusted friends who will give them good advice.

They need to do lots of networking and learn to judge whether someone is sandbagging them or not. What are the motives of people giving them advice? They need to have more than one “mentor.”

Complainant Indicted

What caught my eye in the NYT story was that a major complainant, Ben Wilcox, former dean of paralegal studies at Kaplan, is “under indictment on charges of hacking into the company’s computer system and sending out harassing e-mails.”

Wilcox told the NYT, “They’ll tell you all sorts of terrible things about me but the bottom line is that Kaplan is a cold-hearted scam to make money by taking student loans from the government and leaving students with debt that they’ll never be able to repay.”

PR news sources who don’t want to be contacted now claim that any e-mails sent to them are “harassment,” a crime. They also charge that unwanted e-mails are “SPAM.”

“Strategy” of some organizations under investigation is to attack complainants by looking for any laws or rules they may have broken and threatening them with lawsuits, arrest or legal actions of one type or another.

Wilcox says Kaplan is intent on discrediting him because he has access to incriminating evidence.