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The U.S. Government Accountability Office has released results from a second undercover “secret shopper” investigation of for-profit colleges, this time attempting to enroll a fictitious student online at 15 unnamed institutions. The findings were mixed, but investigators uncovered problems with how seven of the colleges handled online course grading, academic dishonesty or students’ exit counseling.

The previous GAO sting of for-profits remains controversial, however.

That investigation found deceptive student recruiting practices at 15 for-profits. Released last year, the report was politically damaging to the sector, and generated heavy news media coverage. But it included substantial errors and was later revised, resulting in somewhat softened findings.

Some for-profit colleges and their advocates continue to question the GAO’s credibility. Penny Lee, managing director of the Coalition for Educational Success, an industry trade group, said she viewed anything produced by the GAO unit that conducted both investigations with a “healthy degree of skepticism.”

Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who has led Congressional criticism of for-profits, requested the latest review -- a yearlong process that was completed last month. The GAO and its 15 faux students, 12 of whom were admitted, documented enrollment procedures, course costs, financial aid processes, course structure and student withdrawal, as well as how colleges handled substandard student performance. The investigated courses were fully online.

For their sample, investigators chose the five largest for-profit institutions, based on 2008 enrollments, as well as one college that has been the subject of allegations of misconduct received by the GAO. The remaining nine were picked for a variety of essentially random criteria, such as class start dates. The GAO did not name the colleges.

Harkin expressed concern about the nature of the report’s findings, particularly on relatively high-cost courses of questionable academic quality.

“While I am pleased to see that many individual instructors offered assistance to GAO undercover students turning in substandard work,” Harkin said in a written statement, “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.”

For-profits have also criticized Harkin for allegedly playing loose with facts in his pursuit of the industry. Most notably, they pounced on a recent correction to a report on for-profit colleges' Post-9/11 G.I. Bill revenues. The U.S. Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which Harkin chairs, used flawed methodology in that report, and had to correct a key figure it had previously released.

The Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities said the latest investigation represents only a "tiny fraction" of for-profits.

“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, the association's interim CEO and president, said in a written statement

New GAO Team

The GAO’s Forensic Audit and Special Investigations Unit handled both of the for-profit investigations. But new personnel conducted the second half of this latest review.

“It was the same unit but a totally different team,” said Richard J. Hillman, the unit’s managing director and primary author of the newly issued report.

Hillman in March replaced the previous managing director, Greg Kutz, and the rest of the unit was replaced then as well. Critics asserted that Kutz was demoted in response to controversy surrounding the earlier report on the for-profit sector, but Hillman said such staffing moves are fairly common.

Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican who heads the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said last spring that a GAO restructuring was required in response to revelations of serious errors in the for-profit report.

“Congress and the American people trust the GAO to provide impartial and objective information about federal programs that enable Congress to make informed decisions and take necessary action,” Issa said in a written statement. “This important change in leadership and organization increases my confidence these initial steps will address issues that this Committee’s ongoing investigation has identified.”

Hillman, however, defended last year’s student recruiting investigation.

Revisions "didn’t alter any of our findings or conclusions,” he said. “We continue to stand behind that report.”

In a subsequent review, the GAO acknowledged some mistakes, but found no biases in the report's production. “There were process, supervisory and analytical weaknesses that led to errors and missing context,” the office said.

Even so, the rewrite is likely to blunt the impact of this latest investigation. Issa was not the only Congressional Republican to publicly criticize the GAO, and the Coalition for Educational Success has sued the office for “professional malpractice.” That lawsuit is pending.

Lee said the GAO is misrepresenting the for-profit industry with "cherry-picked sampling" and erroneous data.

"This continuing demonization of only one sector doesn't speak to the quality of education that all of higher education needs to deliver," she said.

Plagiarism and Missed Deadlines

The new report includes some damaging findings.

Investigators began by scrutinizing the enrollment process, with students attempting to enroll with bogus high school diplomas. Only three were denied entry.

Once admitted, the GAO students tested instructors by intentionally performing poorly in classes. In response, one or more instructors at four colleges failed to adhere to institutional grading standards.

For example, one for-profit, dubbed “College 4” in the report, appeared sloppy in various ways. An investigator posing as a student in a class on learning strategies consistently submitted inadequate work, such as photos of celebrities and political figures for a written exam that required detailed answers. The student, however, received a passing grade of C- in the class.

The student’s adviser also provided an inaccurate class end date, according to the report, which resulted in the student missing deadlines for assignments. College 4 later failed to acknowledge the student’s request for withdrawal, and it did not offer exit counseling (although investigators said it was unclear whether counseling was required by law in this case).

Instructors at six colleges responded properly when students did not perform up to standards. In some cases they sought out students, including one instructor who repeatedly tried to contact a student about missed assignments via college and personal e-mail accounts, and by phone. The instructor eventually locked the student out of the class.

The GAO students often plagiarized material for assignments, and instructors at two colleges took no action to remove students after catching instances of plagiarism.

In one case an instructor appeared to show a student how to cheat on a multiple-choice quiz, noting that the same test, with the same answers, could be retaken. “It’s not hard to get a 100 percent on the second try,” the instructor said, “just jot down the correct answers and take the quiz again.”

Investigators took a total of 31 classes, at an average cost of $1,287 per class. The report questioned some costs. For example, one college requires students to purchase a laptop. Although a GAO student asked not to receive the laptop, the student was asked to fill out a “laptop agreement form” and received the computer without any further explanation, even when the investigator asked about returning it.

The GAO did not make any recommendations in the report, and was careful to stress that the investigation netted only anecdotal results.

“The experience of each of our undercover students is unique and cannot be generalized to other students taking courses offered by the for-profit colleges we tested or to other for-profit or nonprofit colleges,” the report said.

As the for-profit with the largest enrollment, the University of Phoenix was obviously part of the investigation. Richard Castellano, a spokesman for the Apollo Group, which owns Phoenix, said the university was one of the three that properly denied admittance to the GAO plant.

Castellano said university officials remain concerned about the previous GAO report, but that Phoenix was proud of its strong student protections.

“We continue to uphold the highest standards across higher education, ensuring that the students who enroll are qualified and are well prepared to meet our rigorous academic standards,” he said. “We are gratified that our teams on the ground yet again acted in accordance with our written policies and in the best interests of both the prospective student and the institution.”

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