An undercover investigation by the Government Accountability Office has found evidence of lax academic standards in some online for-profit programs.
The probe, which is described in a report made public Tuesday, found that staff at six of the 12 colleges that enrolled the investigators tolerated plagiarism or awarded credit for incomplete or shoddy work.
The release of the report, "For-Profit Schools: Experiences of Undercover Students Enrolled in Online Classes at Selected Colleges," comes roughly a year after the accountability office revised an earlier report on recruiting abuses at for-profit colleges, acknowledging errors and omissions in its findings. A coalition of for-profit colleges has sued the office over that report, accusing its investigators of professional malpractice.
In that earlier investigation, the office sent undercover investigators to 15 for-profit colleges to pose as prospective students. It found widespread deception in recruiting by the colleges, with many employees providing students with false or misleading information about graduation rates, job prospects, or earning potential.
This time, the agents attempted to enroll in online programs at 15 for-profit colleges using a home-school diploma or a diploma from a closed high school. Twelve of the colleges accepted them.
The "students" then proceeded to skip class, plagiarize, and submit "substandard" work. Though several ultimately failed their classes, some got credit for shoddy or plagiarized work along the way.
At one college, a student received credit for six plagiarized assignments; at another, a student submitted photos of political figures and celebrities in lieu of an essay, but still earned a passing grade. A third student got full credit on a final project, despite completing only two of the three required components. That same student received full credit for an assignment that had clearly been prepared for another class.
In two cases, instructors confronted students about their repeated plagiarism but took no disciplinary action against them. One student received credit for a response that was copied verbatim from other students' discussion posts.
Instructors at the other six colleges followed their institutions' policies on grading and plagiarism, and in some cases offered to help students who appeared to be struggling.
All of the students ultimately withdrew or were expelled from the programs. Three of the colleges failed to provide the departing students with federally required exit counseling about their repayment options and the consequences of default.
Sen. Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, who requested the report, said its findings "underscore the need for stronger oversight of the for-profit education industry."
"It is obvious that Congress must step in to hold this heavily federally subsidized industry more accountable," he said.
Mr. Harkin, who is chairman of the Senate education committee, is conducting an investigation into for-profit colleges and is expected to offer legislation dealing with the colleges soon.
But critics of Mr. Harkin and the accountability office say the report should be viewed with skepticism.
"The GAO continues to misrepresent the career-college sector through the promotions of erroneous data, cherry-picked sampling, and sloppy and misleading audit work," said Penny Lee, managing director of the Coalition for Educational Success, the group that sued over the earlier report.
"The GAO and Senator Harkin's continuing down this path simply damages higher-education opportunities for Americans in a fragile economy," she said.