Expected Gains in For-Profit College Stocks (APOL, WPO, STRA, DV, CECO)

Source: Flickr, James Sarmiento
After a shaky start to the year, the for-profit college sector has pulled itself back up. With one exception, however, four of five stocks we looked at are still down for the year and all five remain below 52-week highs. The five stocks we reviewed are Apollo Group, Inc. (NASDAQ: APOL), The Washington Post Co. (NYSE: WPO), Strayer Education Inc. (NASDAQ: STRA), DeVry, Inc. (NYSE: DV), and Career Education Corp. (NASDAQ: CECO).

The for-profits face tighter rules on recruiting and somewhat closer oversight on graduation and job placement rates. Student loan defaults continue to be a problem, and last month the US Government Accounting Office reported on widespread cheating at some of the schools. And one of the schools, Career Education Corp., had its CEO resign. All in all, what was once a high-flying sector has lost a good deal of its appeal.

Apollo Group, which owns the University of Phoenix, is the largest of the for-profit operators based on student enrollment. The company’s stock has a median target price of $54.00, up from $53.00 on November 1st. At a current price of $50.01 at around noon today, the potential upside for the shares is 8%. Shares have gained nearly $4.00 since November 1st.

The Washington Post owns the Kaplan schools. The company’s median target price is a meaningless $275.00 from a single broker who must not have noticed that the share price is now $349.00. The drag on the company’s stock comes from its newspaper operations, of course, without which the Post would be operating at a loss.

Strayer has a median target price of $100.00, down from $104.00 on November 1st. The current share price is $99.43, leaving an implied gain of less than 1%. The company recently purchased the Jack Welch Institute of Management, which gave the stock a shot in the arm. Shares are down about -28% for the past 12 months.

DeVry has a median target price of $52, slightly lower than its target of $52.50 on November 1st. The shares are trading today at $35.22, for a potential upside of 47.6%. The stock goes ex-dividend tomorrow in advance of its twice-yearly dividend payment of $0.15/share. DeVry’s stock is down nearly -20% for the past 12 months.

Career Education has a median target price of $9.50, a drop of more than -50% from its target of $20.00 on November 1st. Shares are trading today at $7.33, for a potential upside of 29.6%. Of all these stocks, this one has been hammered the most over the past year, with a share price loss of nearly -61%. The CEO resigned last month, and 49 of the company’s schools must this month show reasons why they should not lose their accreditation.

Of these schools, only Apollo, which has seen its share price grow by about 37% in the past year offers even the remotest opportunity for investors. The stock’s 52-week high is less than $0.25 higher than its new target price, and the company claims that it came out clean in the GAO cheating investigation because it was one of the three schools to deny admission to students based on insufficient credentials. Enrollments are the key for Apollo, though, and it will have to spend more to keep those enrollments up.

The rest of this group is so weak that even lowered targets may be well out of reach. Overall, for-profit schools are unlikely to repeat the rapid growth they managed just a few years ago. There could be some consolidation in this sector or some closures. Either would be a big help.

Paul Ausick

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