Federal report slams online for-profit colleges

Harkin requested the GAO report released Nov. 22.

Undercover investigators from the federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) earned course credit while skipping classes and submitting substandard work in online for-profit college programs – findings the for-profit industry has labeled politicized and unreliable.

“For-Profit Schools: Experiences of Undercover Students Enrolled in Online Classes at Selected Colleges,” a GAO report released Nov. 22, is the second government examination of for-profit colleges’ practices, which have been called into question by many in higher education and lawmakers in Congress.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), head of the Senate’s education committee, ordered the yearlong investigation in which GAO agents pretended to be online students at 15 for-profit colleges.

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Eight of the for-profit colleges mentioned in the report “appeared to follow existing policies related to academic dishonesty, exit counseling, and course grading standards,” including failing to discuss loan repayment options and the consequences of loan default with outgoing students, as required by law.

Some for-profit instructors pointed out sub-par class work submitted by GAO investigators who posed as students, but the report detailed many instances of educators who didn’t “adhere to grading standards.” One instructor accepted photos of political figures and celebrities in lieu of an essay questions response, and gave the student a passing grade.

“While I am pleased to see that many individual instructors offered assistance to GAO undercover students turning in substandard work, the fact that many of the schools accepted incomplete and plagiarized work — sometimes for full credit — leads me to question whether for-profit college students are truly receiving the quality education they are promised to prepare them for a good job,” Harkin said.

Federal statistics have shown that students who attend for-profit schools – many with large web-based course selections – are more likely to default on their loans than students who attend public or nonprofit colleges and universities.

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) last year instituted “gainful employment” rules meant to more strictly regulate the for-profit education sector, which hauls in a massive amount of federally subsidized student loans every year.

During the 2009-10 academic year, for example, for-profit colleges received more than $32 billion in grants and loans from federal student aid programs.

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