WINTHROP — After years of staying home with her children or cobbling together a living however she could — making ice-fishing traps, cleaning houses — Laura Cameron felt she needed new direction in life.

“I just felt like I was in kind of a slump,” Cameron said. “My kids were getting older, and I knew I’d need a little bit more money to put them through college.”

Cameron had worked as a home health aide and knew that health care was a growing field. She saw a TV commercial advertising medical assisting degrees from Kaplan University, visited the campus in Lewiston and signed up on the spot.

She completed her studies for an associate degree in less than two years, in December 2010, and started a job as a medical assistant on Valentine’s Day 2011. Now Cameron, 37, spends her days taking vital signs, drawing blood and handling patient records at Winthrop Family Medicine.

On the other hand, Whitefield resident Melissa Thornton, who found a job as a medical assistant shortly after graduating, is now at home taking care of her children because she can’t find workable child care and regrets her student loan debt for the school’s higher-than-average tuition.

Thornton chose Kaplan and medical assisting because it seemed to offer an accelerated track into the health care industry. In retrospect, she said, she should have become a nurse, with more responsibility and better pay. It didn’t help that she found out after the fact that the medical assisting program at Kennebec Valley Community College in Fairfield was much less expensive.

For-profit colleges such as Kaplan University have drawn criticism from federal officials and others concerned about low graduation rates and former students defaulting on loans.

Cameron and Thornton are two ends of the spectrum for the school.

Cameron said Kaplan was the perfect place for her, with small classes and lots of other students her age, and has given her access to steady employment in a field she enjoys.

“You’re always going to hear good and bad about every place,” she said. “I loved going to Kaplan. I thought it was a good experience.”

But Thornton, 30, said the expense of her education may not have been worth it. “I spent two years going to school, and I only got a year working under my belt, and now I’m home for the next three years, at least,” she said. “I suppose in the long run it will work out, but I’m at a spot right now where I feel I kind of wasted my time.”

Kaplan University has about 1,400 Maine students enrolled in courses online or at its campuses in South Portland and Lewiston, and the school is registering students for classes scheduled to start this fall in Augusta.

In interviews with several Mainers who graduated from Kaplan last summer, most said they were satisfied, though a few have not been able to find work in their fields of study.

Kaplan University Maine President Christopher Quinn said the school already has received a promising response to its plans to expand and that the Augusta location in the former Staples store in the Marketplace at Augusta will provide more options in a state that lags in higher education attainment.

Increased scrutiny

Kaplan University is a subsidiary of Kaplan Higher Education, which owns schools serving more than 74,000 students in 22 states, making it one of the largest for-profit college operators, along with the University of Phoenix, Education Management Corporation and Corinthian Colleges.

Private-sector education has received increased scrutiny from federal officials in recent years. According to the U.S. Department of Education, students at for-profit institutions represent 12 percent of all higher education students, 26 percent of student borrowing and 46 percent of student loan dollars in default.

Federal regulations intended to ensure that students can secure “gainful employment” after graduating from career training programs went into effect July 1, though a federal court already has struck down one part of the regulations. If schools cannot meet gainful employment standards by 2015, they risk losing access to federal student aid.

Data released by the Department of Education in late June show that 5 percent of 3,695 career training programs surveyed failed to meet gainful employment standards. Although the report included public, private nonprofit and private for-profit institutions, all the failing programs are at for-profit schools.

All career training programs in Maine included in the report passed the new standards, as did all Kaplan University programs in Maine and elsewhere.

Three programs run by other subsidiaries of Kaplan Higher Education were among the 193 programs found not to meet the gainful employment standards.

Kaplan Commitment allows students to withdraw in the first five weeks of their first 10-week term at Kaplan University, and first-time students who do not have a C average in every class at the midpoint will be removed. Those students will be refunded everything they’ve paid.

“It was created to make sure that students could reap reward from their investment of time, energy and money in college education,” Quinn said. “The people having trouble paying back (loans), they weren’t our graduates. They were people who dropped out before graduation.”

Kaplan Commitment is too new to show an impact on graduation rates, but Quinn said Kaplan’s internal tracking of student retention from term to term and year to year shows positive effects.

Cost is a factor

By some measures — such as graduation rate, job placement rate and student debt data — Kaplan University stacks up well against other central Maine educational institutions, but it fares less well in others.

Six months after graduation, 90 percent of Kaplan’s Maine graduates are working in their field. Quinn said that is a conservative number because any graduates the school can’t find are counted as not employed in their field.

By contrast, the 2010 alumni career survey for the University of Maine at Augusta — which is essentially across the street from Kaplan’s new campus in the Marketplace at Augusta — found 63 percent of graduates working in their field.

Kaplan University’s 22 percent graduation rate for Maine places it in the company of UMA at 17 percent and Central Maine Community College at 25 percent but below Kennebec Valley Community College’s graduation rate of 49 percent.

Kaplan is more expensive than the public institutions. The estimated cost of an associate degree is $22,500 for most programs in Lewiston and South Portland.

UMA spokesman Bob Stein estimated than an associate degree in business would cost $15,000 at UMA, and KVCC President Barbara Woodlee said an associate degree in medical assisting would cost less than $10,000 at her school. Both are degrees Kaplan also offers.

Kaplan’s students are more likely to default on their loans. For fiscal year 2009, 17.3 percent of Kaplan University students overall were not repaying loans on time. Separate figures about Maine students were unavailable.

For the same year, UMA’s default rate was 13 percent, KVCC’s was 10.8 percent and CMCC’s was 10 percent.

Kaplan Commitment is intended to reduce default rates by intervening before unsuccessful students incur debt. Students who are removed because they are not passing classes are connected with community resources to help them become college-ready, Quinn said.

Quinn noted that Kaplan students typically face many challenges to education, including delaying enrollment after high school, working full-time while attending and being parents — three of the risk factors identified by the National Center for Education Statistics.

“It’s really important to note that Kaplan as a whole has a much higher graduation rate with three or more risk factors, and that’s the majority of students coming to us.” Quinn said.

Officials for the public institutions in central Maine played up their affordability, but they and Quinn said higher education shouldn’t be viewed as a zero-sum game.

“Given the need for higher education in the region, it’s good to have all of the opportunities and choices for people that the higher education community can provide,” Woodlee said. “We welcome them as new neighbors and look forward to collaborating in the future.”

Roger Philippon, dean of planning and public affairs at CMCC in Auburn, said the college has collaborated with Kaplan’s Lewiston staff through the Androscoggin Chamber of Commerce and College for ME Androscoggin. Some students earn degrees from both institutions.

CMCC surpassed 3,000 students for the first time this spring, and much of the growth has come in programs that overlap with Kaplan’s, including medical assisting and criminal justice.

Stein said that although UMA and Kaplan both offer online courses and serve a lot of older and part-time students, they have different advantages. UMA provides more of a “full university experience,” for example, with a library, fitness center and student life programming.

“I think giving people choices is good, and anything that grows the economy,” Stein said. “We’re not going to change anything we do. If we can deliver on quality and affordability, that’s the biggest draw for people to come here.”

Success vs. debt

The Kaplan University graduates interviewed by the Kennebec Journal are scattered through central and southern Maine and earned associate degrees in several fields.

All are women, as are 78 percent of Kaplan’s students in Maine. None enrolled in Kaplan directly after high school, and it was the first college experience for most. Many have few or no relatives who have graduated from college.

The graduates are either pursuing further education, working in their fields of study, unable to find work in his or her field or not looking for work.

Employers can be pickier in a weak job market, and many are seeking someone with at least a couple of years of work experience in addition to a degree.

“I’ve been looking for work for a year,” said Anita Austin, who earned an associate degree in paralegal studies. “I graduated in June of last year, and I can’t get a job in the legal field. I’ve had a few interviews. Even when they post a job, they’re asking for two, three years’ minimum experience.”

Austin, 52, of Sabattus, enrolled at Kaplan after being laid off from her job as an inspector at Elmet Technologies in Lewiston, so her tuition was paid by a federal program that supports displaced workers. That means she, unlike most Kaplan graduates, has no student loans to pay.

She said she applies to about 10 jobs each month and in the meantime is back working at Elmet.

Litchfield resident Ashley Richards, 23, is not as fortunate. She studied business administration and accounting but found that most employers want more than an associate degree.

Richards works in the kitchen and dining room of a retirement home, the same job she had before enrolling at Kaplan. She became discouraged and stopped applying for jobs, but she plans to start again soon.

She has about $25,000 in student loans.

“They’re $400-a-month payments,” she said. “I’m broke every week because I pay student loan debt.”

Farmingdale resident Dawna Myrick earned an associate degree in medical assisting, but is still working as Hallowell’s city treasurer, a job that is steady but not fulfilling.

“I’m just tired of it. There’s no challenge. It’s not rewarding,” Myrick said.

She said she didn’t do enough research before enrolling and didn’t realize the program wouldn’t prepare her to work in an emergency room. She will start an associate degree in nursing at KVCC next year.

Kaplan plans to add nursing at Augusta, but not initially.

Myrick, 51, said she appreciated the personal, small-school feel of Kaplan and that she received an excellent education. She would have chosen Kaplan over KVCC if nursing were available.

“The good thing is, is between now and (graduating) I’m not going to have to bust my hiney, so to speak, because a lot of those credits will transfer,” Myrick said.

Monmouth resident Angela Cyr also praised the personal atmosphere at Kaplan. Cyr, 46, studied early childhood education and got a job as an education technician for the Lewiston School Department within two months after graduating.

From the admissions and financial aid process to career counseling, Cyr said, the Kaplan staff was eager to help adult learners taking their first college courses.

“When you get into the classes, they are very careful to check up on you early on in your classes to make sure everything’s going all right, seeing if you’re understanding what the course work entails,” Cyr said. “I can’t say enough about Kaplan.”

Public schools cheaper

Whitefield’s Thornton, 30, plans to stay home with her children until they start elementary school and now wonders whether Kaplan was a waste of time.

“They have a good program and good teachers, but you can probably get your education somewhere else for half the price,” Thornton said.

Other graduates acknowledged that Kaplan is more expensive than public institutions but said they thought it provided good value.

Austin said prospective students would have to decide whether small classes — Kaplan’s Maine programs average 14 students in a class, Quinn said — are worth the higher tuition.

Though she hasn’t found the job she wants, Austin is glad she earned a degree.

“Any education is worth it,” she said. “It is, because I will find something. I have faith that I will find something. I’m going to keep plugging away.”

Cameron, the Winthrop medical assistant, said she experienced some sticker shock, but she believes that her decision will pay off in the long run. She earns more money now and was able to negotiate with her lender for a lower monthly payment on her student loans.

Cameron hopes that her experience will be an example to her children. Her son is enrolling in Southern Maine Community College’s fire science program, and her daughter is entering her senior year at Winthrop High School.

“They saw that I struggled before, with part-time jobs here and there,” Cameron said. “Now I have benefits. I have a pension that I’m putting money toward. They know that I have a better future ahead because I went to college.”

Susan McMillan — 621-5645

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