Jacob Heilbrunn

Scandal at the Washington Post

The remit of newspapers has always been to expose scandal. The Washington Post, at least since Watergate, has regarded itself as in the forefront of the crusaders for justice. Now its empire is under siege. The revelations of corruption at Kaplan Higher Education, a key part of the company, are bringing dishonor upon the Post.

To add insult to injury, the story has been broken by the very kind of internet website that is bringing the newspaper's circulation low: the Huffington Post (where I occasionally contribute) reports that Kaplan has been bilking students:

The Kaplan name has been doing no favors for the Washington Post's reputation or that of the Graham family. As HuffPost business reporter Chris Kirkham detailed this week in a hard-hitting piece drawing on former Kaplan insiders, management has employed deceptively aggressive marketing practices to recruit students, while enrolling many in classes without their knowledge, enabling the company to pocket a larger slice of the federal financial dollars that comprise upwards of 85 percent of their tuition revenues.

Like many schools in the thriving for-profit college industry, Kaplan has churned out graduates with debts most cannot hope to repay, given the meager wages they will likely earn. Indeed, Kaplan's graduates have wound up defaulting on their federal student loans at roughly twice the rate of counterparts at non-profit university programs.

For the Post, these accusations of extensive malversation at Kaplan are doubly dire. Not only does they tarnish the reputation of the newspaper, but there is also a practical matter. The newspaper has been losing money. Kaplan, by contrast, has been keeping it afloat. Nor is this all. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is suing Kaplan for racial discrimination. You can read all about it in the Post itself.

The broader question raised by the Kaplan imbroglio is the whole idea of higher education as for-profit industry. Writing in the National Interest, Anthony Grafton correctly notes that much of the derision and contumely directed at elite schools is misplaced. But where there's smoke there is also fire. Sordid things are happening as businesses such as Kaplan, which made its name as a test preparation center, morph into education establishments. It's also the case that university presidents are cashing in, as Graham Bowley detailed earlier this year in an illuminating piece in the New York Times, creating what he calls an "academic-industrial complex."

For now the Post will  have to perform the task of cleaning its own Augean stables. Its troubles offer a further reminder that not even the press is exempt from the scrutiny it likes to extend to others.