Associating online education with a college sector that has been hammered by public figures, nonprofit organizations, and Education Department (ED) officials in recent years could tarnish the public’s perception of web-based learning, Nassirian said.

“Committing fraud is easier from a distance,” he said, referring to a 2010 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report detailing how for-profits pressure students into signing up for massive student loans. “That’s just the nature of distance delivery. It’s just like eMails you get from princes in West Africa asking for money. There’s more ambiguity online.”

Not everyone who has tracked the huge growth in the for-profit college sector agreed.

Criticism and negative headlines about for-profit programs won’t dissuade prospective students from inquiring about online courses, said Neal McClusky, associate director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C.

McClusky, who called the federal “gainful employment” regulations “unfair” because they target a specific sector of higher education, said students understand that criticism of for-profit colleges “has more to do with the for-profit part than the online education aspect.”

“I don’t get the sense that the negative focus on for-profit schools has done much to tar online education generally,” he said. “For-profit schools are associated more with schools that have a small office with a few classrooms in a nearby strip mall than they are with online education.”

ED’s “gainful employment” rules are meant to ensure that students aren’t graduating from for-profit colleges unqualified for the professional world and burdened with excessive student loan debt.


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