For-profit colleges face mounting scrutiny

The hefty settlement did little to quell public criticism.

Congressman Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., urged lawmakers to launch hearings to investigate common practices in publicly-traded colleges and universities. A Congressional investigation, Cummings said, would “shine a light on the for-profit education industry and provide the American people with a clear picture of the true costs of education.”

“The pattern of behavior reported is disheartening at best, and infuriating at worst,” Cummings said in a statement posted on his web site. “At a time when our economy has afforded no luxuries to America’s working classes, to find that for-profit institutions allegedly drew students in with disingenuous claims and sometimes outright fabrication, subjected them to onerous loans, and left them often unusable ‘credits’ is inexcusable.”

Cummings’s call for an investigation into the for-profit college industry was spurred by a report from ProPublica — a nonprofit organization based in Manhattan that examines public policy.

Manny Rivera, a University of Phoenix spokesman, said ProPublica — run by former managing editors at The Wall Street Journal and The Oregonian — included dubious claims about commercial universities in its Nov. 3 story, “At University of Phoenix, Allegations of Enrollment Abuses Persist.”

“ProPublica is a partisan and experimental investigative newsroom known for ‘muckraking tactics’ and ‘hatchet jobs,'” Rivera said. “University of Phoenix hopes to have the opportunity to provide the congressman with the facts, as the allegations contained in the ProPublica piece are wholly imbalanced, subjective, and salacious.”

A former University of Phoenix instructor based in Michigan said he witnessed a gradual erosion of acceptance standards from 2000-06, when he taught online finance courses for undergraduate and graduate students.

The former teacher spoke to eCampus News on the condition of anonymity so he could detail his experience at the university without being identified by Phoenix officials.

During his first three years teaching Phoenix online courses, the former instructor said his classes consisted of about 10 students, most of whom were adult learners looking to earn a degree and supplement their resumes.

By 2004, the instructor said, the university’s change in admission requirements made his class sizes balloon to 20 students. And many students were recent high school graduates who needed remedial courses or adults whose first language was not English.

The instructor said lesson plans had to be halted or delayed while he explained basic concepts and requirements to a handful of unprepared students.

“The quality of students declined precipitously when that happened … and the educational experience really suffered,” he said. “I had to deal with an unbelievably bad situation.”

“I had to spend a highly disproportionate amount of time with those students compared with other students,” he added. “And that was detrimental for the really good students in my classes.”

During his last year teaching Phoenix finance classes, the former instructor assigned students a project that involved analyzing a company’s financial disclosure documents and—using graphs and charts—explaining if they would invest in the company.

He said two students who struggled throughout the semester simply printed out companies’ disclosure papers and turned them in as their final project.

“The papers were 20 pages of plagiarized text that weren’t even relevant or germane to the project,” the one-time instructor said. “They just wanted to reach the page requirement.”

Denny Carter

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