The newly-published GAO investigation into academic standards at for-profit online colleges reveals, unsurprisingly, a mixed bag: Some of the for-profits expelled GAO investigators posing as students for cutting class, skipping assignments, and turning in plagiarized or deliberately bad work. Others let the behavior slide and happily cashed the tuition checks. Given that some big for-profits get 90 percent of their revenue from federal financial aid programs, and many students at for-profits are academically and economically at-risk, this kind of scrutiny is entirely appropriate and the percentage of for-profit colleges with lax or nonexistent standards is far too high. This also highlights, once again, how the voluntary accreditation system is inadequate for providing the kind consumer protection and quality control students and taxpayers need.
HOWEVER — does anyone seriously think that the problems of skipping class and turning in plagiarized work are isolated in the for-profit sector? One of my housemates in college skipped the entire month of October 1990 to watch the baseball playoffs, drink beer, and play poker. He received his bachelor’s degree in economics the following Spring. There’s a whole industry devoted to supplying both sides of the plagiarism /anti-plagiarism arms race in non-profit colleges and universities. Studies show that many students learn little or nothing in four years of traditional college. And of course those institutions are also getting tens of billions of dollars from federal financial aid programs, are covered by the same flawed accreditation system, etc. The heightened federal scrutiny of for-profits over the last few years has been entirely warranted but the time has come to start asking these same questions about other colleges, too.