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For-Profit Schools: Experiences of Undercover Students Enrolled in Online Classes at Selected Colleges

GAO-12-150 Published: Oct 31, 2011. Publicly Released: Nov 22, 2011.
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Once comprised of local, sole-proprietor ownership, the nation's for-profit institutions now range from small, privately owned schools to publicly traded corporations. Enrollment in such colleges has grown far faster than in traditional higher-education institutions. Moreover, during the 2009-2010 school year, for-profit colleges received almost $32 billion in grants and loans provided to students under federal student aid programs, as authorized under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended. Because of interest in the student experience at for-profit colleges, GAO was asked to conduct undercover testing by enrolling in online classes under degree-granting programs. To conduct this testing, GAO selected 15 for-profit colleges using a selection process that included the 5 largest colleges and a random sample and attempted to enroll using fictitious identities. Once enrolled, each fictitious student engaged in behaviors consistent with substandard academic performance. Each fictitious identity enrolled for approximately one term, as defined by the college. The experience of each of GAO's 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. GAO intended to test colleges that were unaware of its true identity. However, there exists a possibility that these colleges identified GAO's fictitious students and altered their behavior based on the assumption that they were under observation. This product contains no recommendations. Where applicable, GAO referred information to the Department of Education for further investigation.

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