May 30, 2024

There Are 750 Doctoral Student Complaints To Education Dept. About Grand Canyon U.

There Are 750 Doctoral Student Complaints To Education Dept. About Grand Canyon U.

Brian Mueller, the president of Grand Canyon University, which bills itself as a Christian school and is the largest recipient of federal aid of any institution of higher education, has engaged in an aggressive counterattack after (and even before) the U.S. Department of Education last October imposed a $37 million fine on the school f0r allegedly deceiving doctoral students about the costs of their educations.

$37 million is a big fine, but Grand Canyon has resources. The school, which has 100,000 students online and on its Phoenix campus, got $837 million from taxpayers for Department of Education federal student grants and loans in academic year 2021-22, the most recent year for which data is available, and even more money from federal aid for military service members and veterans; the school boasted $1.26 billion in total revenue that year. Grand Canyon’s for-profit and non-profit arms bring in enough to pay Mueller a combined $2.5 million annually. 

But Mueller, who has publicly asked whether the Department’s action might be religious persecution, doesn’t want to pay. He has appealed the Department’s decision, and he has been echoed by an army of conservative groups and commentators, who seem highly motivated to defend, in lock step, the wealthy school, rather than standing up for struggling students whom the school has apparently tricked into taking on big debt. 

One group that has shown its fealty to Mueller’s school is the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix-based “free-market public policy research and litigation organization.” 

Seeking ammunition to defend Grand Canyon, Goldwater filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Department seeking two categories of records: (1) emails concerning the Grand Canyon investigation between Department officials and key leaders of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission, which has sued Grand Canyon over the same deceptions; and (2) “Copies of records that indicate the total number of complaints submitted by members of the public to the DOE pertaining to GCU’s disclosure of the cost of its doctoral programs from January 1, 2020, to the date of this request.”

In February, Goldwater sued the Department, claiming it had waited too long to provide a response to the FOIA request. 

Last month, Goldwater lawyer Stacy Skankey wrote an article, published on the Fox News website, claiming that documents Goldwater has now received under its FOIA request “reveal that the government’s real motive is not any misconduct on the part of GCU, but animus toward private, affordable education that does not tow the statist party line.”

Skankey’s article reports, accurately, that, in addition to the emails between officials, “We also sought the number of student complaints that were submitted regarding GCU’s graduate programs.” She then continues, “Tellingly, no records of complaints have been produced. Instead, the department produced 800 pages of records that were almost entirely redacted.”

Skankey seemed to sense an improper motive. “What is the federal government hiding,” she wrote, “and why won’t Department of Education officials inform the public about how and why it imposed the largest fine in its history on one of the nation’s largest, best-performing private schools?”

Skankey’s attack ignored that the Department posted in October a 34-page letter detailing the reasons for the fine. Her question also seemed to echo a statement Grand Canyon posted on its website last October: “The Department has based their allegations solely on their subjective opinion of GCU’s disclosures to doctoral students and has confirmed it is not based on student complaints even though they spent a year calling GCU’s doctoral students for information about their experience.” 

Where are the student complaints against Grand Canyon?  If you read Skankey’s article, or Grand Canyon’s post, you could believe that maybe there aren’t any.

But I had, a few days before Skankey’s article, made my own FOIA request to the Department of Education, simply asking for any and all documents it might have provided in response to Goldwater’s request. 

What I got this week, a collection of emails the Department sent Goldwater on April 22, showed Skankey was telling the truth when she wrote that most of the 800 pages provided were blank, heavy with redactions based on FOIA exemptions, and revealing very little. The released records, page after page empty, did not show, as Skankey claimed, “animus toward private, affordable education that does not tow the statist party line.”

More importantly, when Skankey wrote, “We also sought the number of student complaints that were submitted regarding GCU’s graduate programs. Tellingly, no records of complaints have been produced,” she left something important out. 

This is what the Department, in an April 22 letter, told Skankey about the number of student complaints:

The Department does not have any specific record that indicates “the total number of complaints submitted by members of the public to the DOE pertaining to related to GCU’s disclosure of the cost of its doctoral programs from January 1, 2020 to the date of [the] request.” The Department has in its possession accounts from doctoral students complaining about issues related to the cost, time, or number of credits required to obtain a degree at GCU. Those accounts come from written complaints submitted to the Department, oral complaints made to Department employees, and borrower defense to repayment applications from students alleging related substantial misrepresentations by GCU. While the precise number of such complaints that meet the specifics of your request is not tracked, the Department has identified over 750 related complaints by doctoral students against GCU that it has received between January 1, 2020 and the date of the request.

So, yes, as Skankey said, the Department essentially produced “no records” in response to her request to know the number of doctoral student complaints against Grand Canyon University since January 2020. But the Department told her, in a letter, the number of doctoral student complaints against Grand Canyon University since January 2020, and that number is “over 750.”

It’s not surprising that a large number of students have indeed complained about Grand Canyon. 

When it imposed the fine last fall, the Department declared that Grand Canyon “lied to more than 7,500 former and current students about the cost of its doctoral programs over several years. GCU falsely advertised a lower cost than what 98% of students ended up paying to complete certain doctoral programs.”

The probe found that going back to 2017, GCU violated the prohibition in federal law against making “substantial misrepresentations” by failing to tell students enough about the cost of the school’s doctoral programs and stating on the school website and in other materials that the  programs cost between $40,000 and $49,000. GCU’s own data, according to the Department, shows that less than 2 percent of graduates completed their students within the cost range that GCU advertised. Most students have needed to enroll in and pay for “continuation courses” to complete the dissertation requirement in these doctoral programs. The school’s data also showed that 78 percent of doctoral program graduates had to pay between $10,000 and $12,000 more than GCU had advertised.

According to the Department, Grand Canyon “did not contest” the Department’s “determination that 98% of students enrolled in certain doctoral programs had to pay more than GCU’s advertised cost.”