On November 23, the United States Government Accountability Office released a report titled “Experiences of Undercover Students Enrolled in Online Classes at Selected Colleges.” It’s a behind-the-scenes look at a few for-profit schools, and the lengths to which they will go to keep students enrolled. This week, I’m going to explain the context for the report and its findings; next week, I’ll look at how the for-profit industry is reacting to the report.
First, some background: In August 2010, the GAO released the results of its first investigation into for-profit colleges. The report focused on recruiting practices at fifteen colleges, and found that all of them made “deceptive or otherwise questionable statements” to undercover investigators posing as applicants. The GAO was careful to note that “results of the undercover tests and tuition comparisons cannot be projected to all for-profit colleges,” and none of the schools involved were identified.
The details were damning: one college encouraged the GAO “applicant” to falsify information on his federal loan forms (advising him not to report $250,000 in savings). One suggested that an applicant list made-up financial dependents in order to qualify for a Pell Grant. Another falsely claimed to be accredited by the same agency that accredits Harvard University. One school told an applicant that as a barber, he could expect to earn up to $250,000 a year. Another said that student loans were not a big problem, because “no one will come after you if you don’t pay.”
The for-profit industry struck back hard, attacking the credibility of the report and, in fact, forcing the GAO to admit that it had made mistakes. It released a corrected version of the report a few months later. Since then, proponents and opponents of for-profit education have argued over whether the corrections change the basic findings of the report, or only affect minor details, and whether mistakes were honest or due to political bias or pressure.
Last week, the GAO released its new report, which used a similar method of having undercover investigators pose as students, this time applying and enrolling in courses at for-profit colleges.
The results are mixed. Investigators posed as applicants at fifteen schools, including the top five schools by enrollment (the schools are officially unidentified, though a spokesman for Kaplan University has said that Kaplan is “College 3” in the report). In each case, they applied using fictitious home-school diplomas or diplomas from closed high schools. Despite the lack of real high school diplomas, twelve schools accepted the “students.”
Once enrolled, the investigators began to engage in what the report calls “behaviors consistent with substandard academic performance.” I call it goofing off, skipping class, and having altogether too much fun. I suppose I am a bit jealous – I would love to be a professional investigator whose job it is to do as poorly as possible in online classes. For example, at “College 4,” a student was supposed to write “detailed explanations to four questions” for an assignment, but instead “submitted photos of political figures and celebrities.” He also skipped required class discussions. Nonetheless, he was given a C- in the class. At “College 8,” a teacher told the investigator that he could retake online quizzes, and that “it’s not hard to get a 100% on the second try; just jot down the correct answers and take the quiz again.”
Some schools, however, did the right thing: College 2, for example, gave the investigator frequent reminders to turn in assignments and attend class, and the student was ultimately failed. Some schools’ results varied by course; College 10 failed its GAO investigator in two courses but gave him a passing grade in a third.
Because the results are so varied, it is difficult to draw broad conclusions about the for-profit industry from this report. About all that can be said is that some for-profit schools will let students pass classes when the students have submitted incorrect, incomplete, or plagiarized work. To me, this shows that they are more interested in selling degrees than in educating students.
Still, no one is claiming that all for-profits are bad, just that some are, and that students should be careful to ask questions about costs, graduation rates, loan amounts, default rates, transferability of credits to other schools, quality of education, and other important matters. This report raises important questions about whether schools are following their own academic standards when it comes to punished dishonest or subpar work.
Next week, I’ll look at how the for-profit industry is responding to the new report. Their reactions, unfortunately, are misleading at best and factually wrong at worst. But I’ll save that analysis for my next post.
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