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.

“It is obvious that Congress must step in to hold this heavily federally subsidized industry more accountable,” Harkin said.

The latest GAO report comes two months after the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee charged that more than $1 billion in Post-9/11 G.I. Bill benefits were spent by students at eight for-profit schools last year.

Errors in the September report were revealed by critics of the Senate findings and later acknowledged by federal officials, and the findings were revised.

“We should be dubious of this new report given the one-sided nature of Senator Harkin’s inquiry into the proprietary sector of higher education and serious flaws in the previous GAO report regarding this sector,” said Brian Moran, interim CEO and president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities (APSCU), a trade group based in Washington, D.C. “Unfortunately, Senator Harkin has chosen to target just one sector of higher education, while similar questions could and should be raised about the non-profit sector.”

Moran said the GAO report targeted bad actors at a few of the country’s thousands of for-profit colleges in an effort to paint the industry as corrupt.

“The reality is that the overwhelming majority of schools in the private sector have proven invaluable in preparing non-traditional students facing unique challenges so they can compete for jobs in a challenging economy,” he said.

The most recent GAO findings included dishonest course registration at one for-profit college.

The undercover student requested part-time enrollment at the college, and signed up for two classes there. The student later found that she had access to three courses provided online, so the student completed the class, and was told later by a college staff member that she would be charged for the extra class that she did not request.

Only three of the 15 GAO investigators who applied to for-profit schools with fake high school diplomas were denied entry.

The GAO report includes examples of instructors who complied with federal academic guidelines and standards.

One instructor, after repeatedly trying to contact an undercover GAO student who had not participated in online class discussions or turned in assignments, locked the student out of the class.

One college that expels students who don’t maintain a 65 percent average after the first five weeks of a semester followed through on the policy and dismissed a faux student when she didn’t meet academic standards.

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