GAO report alleges low standards at for-profits

Updated with response from the University of Phoenix.

A new report from the federal Government Accountability Office alleges that several for-profit colleges accepted bogus diplomas and shoddy work from undercover investigators posing as students.

The report seems to undermine the claim by the for-profit higher education sector that private-sector institutions maintain the same academic standards as not-for-profit public and private universities, although presumably the GAO has not conducted a similar sting at Harvard and Yale.

Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin (D) requested the investigation and hailed its conclusions.

“The findings of this report underscore the need for stronger oversight of the for-profit education industry in order to ensure that students and taxpayers are getting a good value for their investment in these schools,” Harkin said in a statement. He chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Undercover investigators enrolled at 15 for-profit colleges using “fictitious evidence of high-school graduation,” such as a home-school diploma or a credential from a closed high school. Students were able to enroll in 12 of the schools with the bogus credentials.

Undercover students “engaged in substandard academic performance,” behavior that would presumably resulted in censure at a reputable college. Students skipped class, failed to turn in assignments, submitted “incorrect assignments” and plagiarized work.

Results were mixed. Six schools followed school policies in responding to the errant work. Instructors at two schools “repeatedly noted that the students were submitting plagiarized work” but took no action. Instructors at four other schools essentially accepted the subpar work.

“For example, one student submitted photos of celebrities and political figures in lieu of essay question responses but still earned a passing grade,” the report states.

One undercover student “consistently submitted plagiarized material, such as articles clearly copied from online sources or text copied verbatim from a class textbook,” the report states. The instructor chided the student but eventually stopped noting the plagiarism and gave the student credit for the work.

The instructor ultimately failed the student but took no action to report the plagiarism.

The report does not appear to identify the colleges but said the institutions studied included the five largest in enrollment. That list includes both the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University; the latter institution is owned by the Washington Post Co.

The University of Phoenix indicated, in a release, that its officials followed protocol. A spokesman said in a statement the institution acted “in accordance with our written policies and in the best interests of both the prospective student and the institution.”

Spokesman Rick Castellano said Phoenix officials effectively stopped undercover students at the door when they presented phony credentials.

“Want to make it clear that no undercover GAO ‘students’ were able to enroll at the University and therefore none of the report’s findings are a reflection on University of Phoenix,” he said in an e-mail.

Brian Moran, interim president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, responded to the report in a statement:

“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.”

Moran noted that the GAO revised and softened the criticisms in its last fact-finding report on for-profit schools, which prompted a chorus of outrage from the for-profit industry. That report alleged a pattern of deceptive recruiting tactics across the industry.

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