Sylvan Learning Systems (NASDAQ:SLVN) reported fourth-quarter and full-year 2003 earnings on Thursday -- and the company could hardly have made its report more confusing if it had tried.

While Sylvan's report could perhaps provide hours of fun and games at a forensic accountants party, it is an individual investor's nightmare. It includes an accounting change from the a sale of the company's K-12 segment that occurred on June 30, 2003, but that Sylvan asks investors to pretend occurred on Jan. 1, 2003 (in a perverse attempt to make the financials clearer); tax rates that actually did apply and tax rates that Sylvan says hypothetically should have applied; shares outstanding before the year's egregious dilution and shares that resulted from said egregious dilution; and the weighted average of the two.

As best I can tell, revenues from continuing operations climbed 41% to $472.8 million, but operating expenses rose only 37%, with the result that operating income rose 135%, to $33.6 million. Those results sound impressive (if not for the 9.3% share dilution), but at Friday's closing price, they would still yield a P/E of 170. Sylvan would therefore ask investors to bear in mind that, had the K-12 segment's sale not been excluded from the results, the company would have earned $1.05 per share -- for a more reasonable P/E of 29.

In the end, the report's complexity makes it hard to say whether Sylvan is a good buy. Perhaps investors are better advised to wait for the company to file its 10-K with the SEC, and see if that document is any clearer.

While waiting, investors might look at a few of the for-profit educational companies whose financials are a bit easier to read: Strayer Education (NASDAQ:STRA), for example, has a P/E of 48, but an enterprise value-to-free cash flow ratio of only 35. Another educator with a P/E deceptively higher than its EV/FCF is Apollo Group (NASDAQ:APOL). The P/E here is 54 -- but the EV/FCF is only 39.

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Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith owns no shares in any of the companies mentioned here.