Aspen Marketing -- Misuse of Outcome Studies
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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.

Ellen Behrens, Ph.D. conducted the study.   Dr.  Behrens is well known to us at FamilyLight sm.  We have utmost confidence in her competence and integrity.  To all appearances the study was intended to address and counteract the impact of prior research that indicated that residential treatment is no more effective than outpatient treatment.  Apparently a parallel design was used so the comparison to the earlier research would be "apples to apples" and  “oranges to oranges” and not “apples to oranges.” 

If the purpose had been to best document long term effectiveness of the schools and treatment centers at issue, we can think of various designs that would have yielded higher powered results. But that is not a criticism.  The purpose appeared to be to provide a strong basis for comparison to the earlier research, a purpose well served with the design followed and, we believe, the study itself served that purpose extremely well.  So far, kudos to Aspen and to Dr. Behrens.

Our problem is not with the study itself or with the result for the purpose intended. So far we agree.   Our problem is with the uses to which Aspen’s marketing effort has applied the results of the study.  In general, Aspen has used the results of the study to lead readers to believe that the study proves effectiveness of individual schools that participated in the study. This is simply not what the study is about.

Aspen might make the argument that the programs are similar enough that it is a fair conclusion to draw.   Ok, that seems to us to be a bit of a stretch but we would also know how to defend that – if the programs really are similar.  The problem is, they are not.  The programs ranged from recently defunct Mt. Bachelor Academy, an “emotional growth school” to the clinically intensive Youth Care.  At Mt. Bachelor Academy, the school took pride in their history of emphasizing an “emotional growth” curriculum as opposed to primary use of credentialed therapists to effect change, as opposed to Youth Care which is hospital-like in its clinical intensity and its emphasis on psychiatry. 

That is a general problem.  We are specifically disturbed by the use of the study on the website of Turn-About Ranch (as of March, 2010).  This is typically a 100 day program compared to all of the others which were intended to serve clients primarily (and in most cases only) in much longer term stays.  To suggest that this study addresses success specifically at Turn-About Ranch in any meaningful way is simply misleading.  That is the worst example.  But when we have heard the study described at conferences, the point was made with some emphasis that it does not document success in ANY specific treatment program.

Remember: The point of the study was to demonstrate that for certain populations in residential treatment in general – not enrollment in any particular school – had an impact greater than home based family treatment.  This was an “apples to apples” and "oranges to oranges" comparison to an earlier study suggesting that home based family treatment yielded superior outcomes to residential treatment. 

On that point, the results are legitimate and convincing.   There are very legitimate questions about whether the reporting methods of either the Aspen study or the study (ies) it was meant to refute produced reliable outcome data for any program or group of programs.  What it did reliably and factually was to negate the conclusion of the prior studies claiming that outpatient work produces better results than residential.

Clever wording has, in general, avoided making objectively false claims in writing or on the web, while leading unsophisticated readers to conclusions not supported by the study.   However, we had occasion to bring to Aspen executives an incident in which the then admission director (now former admission director) represented the study as an outcome study specifically about Turn-About Ranch, claiming the percentages of young people functioning better a year later were specifically results of Turn-About Ranch. That was outright falsehood. We do not claim that even Aspen was that outrageous over a period of time, but it did occur at least once.  In fairness, we also believe that the Aspen executive we informed about this acted swiftly and firmly.   But the web site entry is still in place today (3/18/2010) without sufficient clarification about what the study really says and does not say.  Turn-About Ranch is an anomaly within the group studied. 

Next Text on Aspen Marketing in Sequence -- Referral from One Aspen Program to Another (red link)   

Navigating the Aspen Marketing article

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

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. The 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 (Red Link)

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)

Additional Links:

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

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.

Last revised April 14, 2010; minor corrections 5-27-2010

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