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GAO report finds cheating, plagiarism and other violations in for-profit colleges’ online classes - Politics - The Boston Globe

This story explains some of my doubts about online education. It is not online education that concerns me, but the poor oversight and administration that threatens to further erode confidence employers have in online degree programs.
GAO report finds cheating, plagiarism and other violations in for-profit colleges’ online classes - Politics - The Boston Globe
First, the obvious question: if the GAO is examining for-profit institutions now, how long before they investigate “non-profit” colleges and universities? I have plenty of questions about education in general, including higher education quality, regardless of the charter of the institutions or their settings. State, non-profit, or for-profit, any institution is only as good as its administration and faculty. Online, oversight is even more challenging than on-campus. It requires more time and energy because it is easy for students (and some faculty) to cut corners online.
The GAO examined enrollment, cost, financial aid, course structure, substandard student performance, withdrawal, and exit counseling in its investigation. Just eight of the 15 colleges it looked into appeared to follow policies related to academic dishonesty, exit counseling, and course grading standards.
One way to look at this: 53 percent of online universities were, at least superficially, in compliance with standards. The more likely case: 47 percent of for-profit online institutions were found to be violating standards in this one, limited investigation and there are possibly more problems. I say that based on my own experiences and the conversations I have had with both students and instructors.
Undercover GAO agents were able to use fake high school diplomas to enroll in online classes at 12 for-profit colleges for one academic term, ranging from four to 11 weeks. They paid an average of $1,287 per class to enroll in basic courses including learning strategies, keyboarding, and introductory computing.
Imagine this: 12 of 15, 80 percent of colleges, admitted unqualified students. This means there was little or no checking of academic transcripts. Colleges and universities need students. They need tuition dollars, especially in this economy. However, we still need to admit only those students with some reasonable chance of learning and succeeding in university-level courses.

My personal experience is that many students in online courses, even at universities with well-intentioned admissions screening, are academically unqualified. Sadly, some of those students do have high school or community college transcripts. Many colleges, including state universities, do not require test scores or other evidence of academic readiness if a student has a valid community college degree. But, since many community colleges are counting pre-packaged online courses and remedial courses towards associate's degrees, colleges and universities are enrolling students unprepared for the demands of university-level work.

I don't have a great answer for how any institution can guarantee students admitted are ready for the work. But, you must check transcripts. I would also require standardized admissions testing for transfer students, which I know is unpopular. It's not the ideal solution, but grade inflation at high schools and colleges means we need some sort of alternative standard.

If the online schools required both transcripts and verifiable test scores, the fake diplomas would have been noticed. Universities need to make it nearly impossible to rig the admissions process.
Among the report’s findings:
  • At a number of schools, students received credit for work that was clearly plagiarized, including text copied verbatim from other students’ discussion posts or the school’s website.
  • Three out of eight schools did not provide students with the federally mandated exit counseling about federal loan repayment options and the consequences of default. (The GAO reported in August 2009 that students attending for-profit colleges were more likely to default on federal student loans.)
  • At one school, a student received credit for submitting photos of political figures and celebrities for an assignment that called for an essay response.
  • Another student received full credit for an assignment that had already been submitted for another class, met none of the criteria sought, and contained a clear notation that it was prepared for another class.
  • One instructor repeatedly offered to wipe out a student’s failing assignments and allow the student to re-submit them, saying, “It’s not hard to get 100 percent on the second try; just jot down the correct answers and take the quiz again.”
I've personally witnessed four of the above five issues at state and non-profit universities. Thankfully, these problems were quickly addressed by administrators. In some instances, faculty made earnest pedagogical arguments that retesting and resubmitting papers were still learning. I disagree, and clearly federal investigators do as well.

Students must be taught, as part of the overall university experience, that each class demands its own unique work. Copying, including cutting-and-pasting online content, is plagiarism. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to prove some plagiarism instances. Students are left learning how to cheat and manipulate the system, which is a lousy lesson to learn.
The report did not identify the colleges investigated by name.
We should start naming names, but only after completed investigations. We cannot allow our high education system to be corrupted by mediocrity online.

As a proponent of online education, I know that reports like this one from the GAO only hurt all online education programs.

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