Aspen Marketing
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FamilyLight sm now recommends against referring to or enrolling in any Aspen or CRC Health school or program due to what the closing of New Leaf of North Carolina says about the value system of that company. For detail, see Tom's blog for May 2010

We have been very concerned about the marketing tactics used by the Aspen Education Group.  In fairness, we must quickly acknowledge during the presidency of Jim Dredge we saw some improvement and were optimistic about further improvement.  We are waiting to see whether or not the current "President" of Aspen, Dr. Philip Herschman, will take the actions we want to see to resolve our concerns. 

We put "President" in quotations marks, as the CRC Health Group and Aspen websites (as of December 12, 2009) make it appear that Aspen is currently simply a brand name applied to some schools and programs within the CRC Health Group organization, and not an identifiable administrative unit.  According to the CRC Health Group Website, Dr. Herschman is actually president of the Healthy Living Division of CRC Health Group

We think marketing is relevant to patient/ student/ resident care.  If facilities are marketed on a basis that deviates from straightforward factual information about what is done well and what is not done well, then can the appropriateness care of the young people be trusted in a facility being so marketed? Can trusting relationships be built?   If marketing creates unrealistic expectations, then will those unrealistic expectations undermine treatment? Best care depends upon trust.  Trust depends upon confidence that what is said can be relied upon.  When marketing practices of a treatment organization appear to be fuzzy or worse, is there a reason to be believe that a more positive standard of ethics is in operation in the facilities themselves?  

Perhaps we should mention that Aspen is not the only organization that engages in the kinds of activities we describe below.  However, when Aspen claims to be the leader in its industry, we might hope that they would lead in a positive way.  Please note the opening wording on the home page of their website as of December 13, 2009:  "Aspen Education Group is recognized nationwide as the leading provider of education programs for struggling or underachieving young people."  We suppose much depends upon who does the recognizing and the direction in which they are leading.   

On Thursday, May 14, 2009, our consultant, Tom Croke, spoke at length with Jim Dredge, then President of Aspen Education Group about the issues described in what follows.  We received a strongly worded apology for some past behavior from senior management people at Aspen, combined with assurance that the antics we have experienced do not reflect the values and practices that he expects from senior management, middle management and front line service providers. 

He did not have the opportunity in that conversation to verify Tom’s account of events, but it was very clear in some cases that the behaviors described were outside the bounds of what he would endorse or what he wanted to see happening in connection with the Aspen name.  In fairness, we must acknowledge that he defended Aspens practices in some other cases, but left room for further dialog in those areas. 

We believe his was a very sincere approach.  However, Jim resigned before significant change could have been implemented.  Implementation of the standards he described would require a major reversal of practice in the marketing division.  We will watch and see what actually happens, now that Jim is gone from Aspen.  We are open to acknowledging progress when we see it and we hope we do.  But we want to see the evidence.

So we still have grave concerns. 

Please note, too, that CRC Health Group has its own Code of Conduct.  Again, we experience cognitive dissonance when we compare this Code of Conduct with what we see happening. We invite you, the reader, to decide for yourself. 

(Navigation note:  To read the entire article on Aspen Marketing, follow a red link each time you encounter one.  This will take you through the entire article and bring you back to this page to complete the article.  If you do not want to read all of the detail you might just stay with this page. If you want to select the topics where you go into further detail, choose from the links immediately below).

We divide our concerns about Aspen Marketing into several different topics showing the kinds of problems we have noticed.  As always, it is our hope to motivate improvement, not cause harm.

1.  Exploiting publicity about abuses in the field, attempting to project the image that Aspen Education is uniquely immune to these problems  (red link).  

Too often we hear of clinicians advising parents that sending their child to a therapeutic program away from home is only a good idea if it is an Aspen program.  Clinicians and other referring professionals who give that advice are likely falling victim to  .   .   .   (more)

2.  Web Advertising.  A further example of where we would like to see improvement at Aspen/ CRC Health Group involves their web advertising.  We saw temporary improvement about the time we previously called public attention to this, but it appears the problem is back, or maybe it never left and we just missed it.    (more)

2a. Documentation

3. Quid pro quo marketing.  Quid pro quo marketing is providing some incentive, often an item of value in exchange for business.  It is not like the “cents off” coupon from your neighborhood grocery store; it is more like paying someone who appears to be a neutral source to tell you that is the best grocery store in town. We are not accusing Aspen or CRC Health Group of actual payoffs or referral fees to educational consultants.  We will let you decide whether or not what we describe crosses any troubling lines.  (more)

              3a. Exorbitant perks

              3b. Special Events

           3c. External Referral

           3d. Information for Referral

4. Misuse of outcome studies.

Aspen, to its great credit, commissioned an extensive outcome study blanketing its schools, excluding its wilderness programs. A problem arises when the study is used to convince others of the effectiveness of one school or treatment center, ignoring the fact that the results of many schools have been lumped together.   (more)

5.  Referral from one Aspen program to another (Internal Referral).

When a person is referred to an Aspen school or program, upon completion of that stay Aspen generally refers back to the referral source, a common practice in their business.  When a person arrives at an Aspen program  .  .  .  (more)

(If you are following the links shown above, this is where you return to the main page. 

We note that NATSAP in its Ethical Principles states in item 2:

Therefore all NATSAP member programs aspire to . . . Honestly and accurately represent ownership, competence, experience, and scope of activities related to their program, and to not exploit potential clients’ fears and vulnerabilities.

We ask the reader to decide what credibility is due Aspen Education, CRC Health Group,  and  Bain Capital in light of this.  We also point to the limitations on NATSAP  to enforce its own standards.  We ask whether it is appropriate for NATSAP to retain as a member any Aspen or CRC Health Group program.  We hope NATSAP will give attention to this issue. 

We at FamilyLight sm remain concerned that NATSAP is handicapped in enforcing its standards.  We have addressed that in an article in our website under the heading Topics of Interest.  The article is entitled “Ethics Enforcement at NATSAP and IECA.” 

NATSAP has taken the lead in attempting to influence federal legislation proposed by Congressman Miller (D-CA) which, in its original form, would have made the entire range of programming discussed in this website unsustainable.  While favoring stricter regulation, NATSAP has advocated the removal of provisions that would have been totally destructive.   We submit that NATSAP might be more credible in this effort if it were not associated with the Aspen/ CRC Health Group/ Bain Capital behavior described above.  In our opinion, this sort if thing is what the Miller bill should be targeting.  We believe  NATSAP should give serious consideration to whether schools and programs associated with Aspen/ CRC Health Group/ Bain Capital are really appropriate for NATSAP membership, given the provisions of NATSAP’s ethical statements, especially Item 2 of its Ethical Principles, noted above.

Remember, an Aspen/ CRC Health Group  program might still be right for you or your child. Do not exclude consideration of Aspen/CRC Health Group  program just because of what we say here. We are addressing marketing.  Some Aspen/CRC Health Group programs maintain reasonable quality standards and one of them might be best for you. We believe that some Executive Directors of specific programs have resisted participation in the kinds of behaviors we describe here and managed to retain their positions.  But make sure you base your decision on information from sources that can evaluate the benefits and shortcomings of both Aspen/CRC Health Group  and non-Aspen/CRC Health Group programs and will do so objectively.   

What surprises us most is that an organization like Aspen/CRC Health Group, which clearly has the capability of operating top-notch facilities, does not turn the majority of the immense budget now spent on perks for referral sources and other marketing tricks into addressing quality across the board.  We don't have the figures we would need in order to be certain, but we believe that by spending that amount of money on the facilities themselves they could bring even their least quality facilities up to par.

Most disturbing is the erosion in incumbency of those leaders who seem to represent the highest standards of competence and integrity.  Some very good people remain.   But in too many cases those with what we regard as having the highest standards of ethics and integrity are resigning, retiring, or being re-assigned to positions of lesser influence.  We think these moves communicate with clarity the real values of Aspen/ CRC Health Group/ Bain Capital.

We hope that Aspen might become the industry leader in the best sense of the word, setting a standard in ethical matters that would meet our guidelines (and those at NATSAP) and inspire its competitors.  When we criticize, our purpose is to motivate improvement, not to do damage.  But Aspen/CRC Health Group programs will never command the respect they pretend to have without hitting the “restart” button in their marketing efforts, in addition to setting quality standards for all of their programs at least consistent with what they have achieved in a few of their best programs.  We would think investors at Bain Capital would demand nothing less.

Return to main article on Aspen Education

Blog entry on closure of Mt. Bachelor Academy

Official web site of Aspen Education

Official web site of CRC Health Group

Official web site of Bain Capital

Tom's Blog, May 2010, recommending against placing  children in Aspen or CRC schools or programs

Return to Major Providers Index

Return to Individual Schools and Programs Index

Woodbury Reports links to Aspen Education

Feedback is invited. We will publish selected feedback.  Email

Disclaimer: No  program review, no matter how positive, is a blanket endorsement. No criticism is a blanket condemnation.  When we express our level of confidence in a school or program, that is our subjective opinion with which others might reasonably disagree.  When we assert something as fact, we have done our best to be accurate, but we cannot guarantee that all of our information is accurate and up to date. When we address compliance with our guidelines, you need to remember that these are only OUR guidelines -- not guidelines from an official source.  We have also set the bar very high, and do not expect any school or program to be in total compliance.  It is not appropriate to draw a conclusion of impropriety (or even failure to live up to conventional wisdom) from our lack of confidence in a school or program or from less than perfect conformity to our guidelines.  Some will say we expect too much. Readers are responsible for verifying accuracy of information supplied here prior to acting upon it. We are not responsible for inaccuracies.



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Last revised June 1, 2010

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