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GAO report finds cheating, plagiarism and other violations in for-profit colleges’ online classes

WASHINGTON -- A number of for-profit colleges routinely gave students credit for substandard and plagiarized work, and handled students’ financial aid improperly, according to the results of an undercover investigation released today by the Government Accountability Office.

The report’s findings raise questions about the lax oversight of the fast-growing for-profit industry that received almost $32 billion in government grants and loans in the 2009-2010 school year.

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“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,” said Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa who is chairman of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, in a statement.

“Coupled with sky-high tuition costs, alarming drop-out rates, poor job placement services, and the many other troubling practices that we’ve uncovered,” he said, “it is obvious that Congress must step in to hold this heavily federally subsidized industry more accountable.”

The GAO examined enrollment, cost, financial aid, course structure, substandard student performance, withdrawal, and exit counseling in its investigation. Just eight of the 15 colleges it looked into appeared to follow policies related to academic dishonesty, exit counseling, and course grading standards.

Undercover GAO agents were able to use fake high school diplomas to enroll in online classes at 12 for-profit colleges for one academic term, ranging from four to 11 weeks. They paid an average of $1,287 per class to enroll in basic courses including learning strategies, keyboarding, and introductory computing.

Among the report’s findings:

- At a number of schools, students received credit for work that was clearly plagiarized, including text copied verbatim from other students’ discussion posts or the school’s website.

- Three out of eight schools did not provide students with the federally mandated exit counseling about federal loan repayment options and the consequences of default. (The GAO reported in August 2009 that students attending for-profit colleges were more likely to default on federal student loans.)

- At one school, a student received credit for submitting photos of political figures and celebrities for an assignment that called for an essay response.

- Another student received full credit for an assignment that had already been submitted for another class, met none of the criteria sought, and contained a clear notation that it was prepared for another class.

- One instructor repeatedly offered to wipe out a student’s failing assignments and allow the student to re-submit them, saying, “It’s not hard to get 100 percent on the second try; just jot down the correct answers and take the quiz again.”

The report did not identify the colleges investigated by name.

A call to the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, which represents for-profit colleges, for comment on the report was not immediately returned.

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeTracyJan.
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