WASHINGTON (AP) — The country’s largest Christian university is being fined $37.7 million by the federal government amid accusations that it misled students about the cost of its graduate programs.
Grand Canyon University, which has more than 100,000 students mostly in online programs, faces the largest fine of its kind ever dealt by the U.S. Education Department. The university previously denied any wrongdoing and says it’s being unfairly targeted in retaliation for an ongoing lawsuit.
An Education Department investigation found that Grand Canyon lied to more than 7,500 current and former students about the cost of doctoral programs.
As far back as 2017, the university said its doctoral programs would cost between $40,000 and $49,000. The department found that less than 2% of graduates completed programs within the range, with 78% paying an additional $10,000 to $12,000.
The additional cost came from “continuation courses” that were needed to finish dissertation requirements, the department said.
GCU’s lies harmed students, broke their trust, and led to unexpectedly high levels of student debt,” said Richard Cordray, chief operating officer for Federal Student Aid, an office in the Education Department. “Today, we are holding GCU accountable for its actions, protecting students and taxpayers, and upholding the integrity of the federal student aid programs.”
The university has 20 days to appeal the department’s fine.
The department is also adding new conditions the school must meet to continue receiving federal money.
The school will be barred from making “substantial misrepresentations” about the cost of doctoral programs, and it must report any other investigations or lawsuits related to its conduct. It must also send a notice to current doctoral students telling them how to submit a complaint to the Education Department.
For the past four years, Grand Canyon has disbursed more federal student aid than any other U.S. institution, the department said.
Earlier this month, Grand Canyon said federal agencies were unfairly targeting the school with “frivolous accusations” in retaliation for an ongoing lawsuit the university filed against the Education Department in 2021.
Grand Canyon sued after the agency rejected the school’s request to be classified as a nonprofit college. It became a for-profit college in 2004 after it found investors to save it from financial collapse. It later applied to become a nonprofit again in 2018 but the Trump administration blocked it, saying the college remained too close to its previous parent company.
It’s considered a nonprofit by its accreditor and the Internal Revenue Service.
The university enrolls roughly 20,000 students at its campus in Phoenix, but most of its overall enrollment comes from students who take online classes from outside Arizona. It enrolled 80,000 students in online programs as of 2021, with a roughly even split between undergrad and graduate programs.
The Biden administration is issuing the fine amid a broader push for accountability among U.S. universities. The Education Department recently approved a new regulation that could cut federal funding to for-profit college programs that leave graduated unable to repay debt, and the agency plans to give students and families more information about outcomes from all colleges.
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