Getting Students by Hook or Crook



Fake it 'til you make it.

That could easily be the motto of a proprietary college chain that took extraordinary measures to get students admitted into their schools, according to a new Government Accountability Office report that found the school was gaming the system to make the students eligible for federal financial aid.

The report - titled Stronger Department of Education Oversight Needed to Help Ensure Only Eligible Students Receive Federal Student Aid - is based on a nearly two-year investigation of the unidentified college, located in the Washington, D.C., area, in which GAO workers posed undercover as prospective students trying to enroll in the college in question.

The undercover GAO workers purposefully flunked a test known as the "ability to benefit" test, which is designed to determine whether students possess the minimal skills needed to complete a college course of study.

For the undercover investigators, flunking the test didn't matter.

If the GAO workers filled in the wrong answers, the incorrect answers would simply be crossed out or changed so that the students passed the test, according to the report.

And that's when the test administrators weren't busy giving out the correct answers during the test itself, the report states.

As for students without a high school diploma, school officials would simply refer the students to  one of the growing number of "diploma mills" and - voila - high school dropouts became high school grads.

The purpose behind perpetrating this fraud? Money. More specifically, the college needed the students to be eligible to receive federal financial aid so they could pay tuition - and the students couldn't get the federal financial aid unless they passed the "ability to benefit" test and had a high school diploma or a GED.

The GAO report and a trade association for proprietary colleges say the problem is not necessarily widespread.

Bob Cohen, senior vice president of the Career College Association, which comprises proprietary colleges, said in a statement sent to Youth Today that the organization "abhor(s) any practice that breaks the rules or the law to admit unqualified students, whether through fraudulent testing practices or bogus high school degrees."

The statement states that the GAO report "describes the actions of a few school personnel and testing personnel behaving in an unethical manner.

"Nothing in the GAO report suggests that the practice of admitting unqualified students is widespread or indicative of the sector as a whole," the statement says.

But Stephen Burd, editor of The Higher Ed Watch Blog, a public policy blog at the New America Foundation, says the problem is endemic.

"I believe that it is fairly widespread, particularly among the largest chains of for-profit colleges, those colleges which are publicly traded on Wall Street," Burd said. "They have a major incentive to continue to increase their enrollment almost at any cost, because that's what Wall Street wants. Wall Street likes to see growth."

By perpetrating these frauds, the college, which was not identified by name, was not only gaming the system at the expense of taxpayers, but it was also hurting the students themselves.

"When ATB tests are not properly administered, a prospective student's ability to benefit from higher education may not be accurately assessed," the GAO report explains. "As a result, prospective students who are academically unqualified are more likely to be admitted to a school and receive federal student aid. Such students are at greater risk of dropping out of school, incurring substantial debt, and defaulting on their federal student loans."

And defaulting on student loans besets students with a whole host of other problems, the report notes, such as bad credit, making it difficult for students to get future education loans, car loans, a mortgage or credit card or even to rent an apartment. And if they're able to find a job, students who default on their loans could also have their checks garnished until their loans are paid off.

Proprietary schools don't serve the vast majority of America's college students (last school year they only got about $16 billion, or a fifth of all federal financial aid) but the 2,000 or so proprietary schools in existence tend to serve more minorities and low-income students - those  who can least afford an educational misadventure that leads them to default on a loan.

"It's tragic for students who leave these schools without any training," Burd says. "People who leave these schools without any training and buried in a huge amount of student loan debt are much worse off than if they never tried. They're paying a high price."

Burd says - and the GAO report confirms - that the problem of fraud and abuse among proprietary colleges is not new.

"At least under the previous administration, the education department looked the other way while these types of issues came up," Burd said. "We would hope the new administration would take these charges more seriously, and it appears they are."

Among other things, the GAO report recommends stricter monitoring of the testing process to curb abuse and fraud in the future.