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Government Finds Cheating, Misconduct at For-Profit Online Colleges


Ever cheated on a test for an online class, or given free pass to a student who you know may have cheated? Last week the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a perhaps not-so-shocking report about shady online class practices at the five largest for-profit colleges and ten other online colleges. The practices uncovered in the report might make any self-respecting teacher wince.

Or, maybe not. Eight of the 15 for-profit schools that were studied followed college policies when it came to academic dishonesty and grading standards, but seven of the schools acted in a less than forthright manner, with one or more teachers failing to take disciplinary action against students who were not present for live classes, or who turned in bogus exam responses.

Does your college have good policies in place to deal with plagiarism and cheating? Have you as an instructor ever been asked to look the other way? Discuss with others in our forums.

Additionally, and perhaps a worrisome indicator for the federal government, which handed out $32 billion in grants and loans through student aid programs in 2009-2010 to for-profit schools, these schools did not consistently follow exit counseling guidelines for students who left school mid-term.

Interesting findings:


    •    12 of an attempted 15 students were accepted into the for-profit colleges using a fictitious home-school diploma or diploma from a high school that closed

    •    12 students were eligible for federal student aid, but only 10 received it

    •    Among students who performed at a substandard level, instructors at 6 colleges, followed school procedures, and some attempted to offer help outside of class

    •    One or more teachers at at least 2 colleges noted repeated plagiarism by students, but did not take action to remove the student

    •    One or more instructors at four colleges did not adhere to grading standards; one student submitted images of celebrities instead of answering exam questions, yet still earned a passing grade

    •    One teacher offered to allow a failing student to repeatedly re-submit assignments, and even pointed out the weakness in the testing software which displays the answers at the end of the exam, writing: “It’s not hard to get 100 percent on the second try; just jot down the correct answers and take the quiz again”


Read the complete report, “For-Profit Schools: Experiences of Undercover Students Enrolled in Online Classes at Selected Colleges” at the GAO’s website.

The investigation was requested by the Senate education committee, chaired by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), in the face of growing criticism surrounding for-profits.

While the GAO did not name the colleges investigated, they said they looked at the five schools with the highest enrollment based on 2008 figures. They also looked at a school which had banked a large number of unsolicited complaints. The remaining nine for-profits were chosen at random.

The largest online schools currently include the University of Phoenix, Kaplan University, and Education Management Corp. EDMC operates online degree programs at Argosy University, South University, and the Art Institutes.

A spokesperson for University of Phoenix claimed that the school rejected the phony credentials presented by the three investigators who attempted to enroll, and therefore the study does not reflect any of their enrollment practices, according to the Washington Post.

“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,” said Sen.Harkin.

The recent GAO report comes a year after the agency’s investigation targeting 15 for-profit colleges for possible fraud and deceptive marketing practices. In the previous probe, “secret shoppers” posed as prospective applicants at both online and on-ground colleges.

The report found all 15 of the schools engaged in deceptive or questionable marketing techniques, that four schools encouraged students to commit financial aid fraud, and that admissions officers provided inaccurate information.

One student received 189 recruitment calls from a college within one month.

For-profit colleges account for 25 percent of the government’s student federal aid budget, according to the New York Times, despite accounting for only 12 percent of all enrolled college students.

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