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The nation's largest Christian university just got fined $38 million for lying about tuition costs
Grand Canyon University told students they could earn a Ph.D. for a lot less than they actually charged, according to the U.S. Department of Education
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The largest Christian university in the country has been lying to students for years about the actual cost of its graduate school programs.
That’s the conclusion of the U.S. Department of Education, which has just levied a record $37.7 million fine against the for-profit Grand Canyon University, based in Phoenix, Arizona. The school, which enrolls over 100,000 students (mostly online), allegedly lowballed its tuition fees to reel students in before hitting them with larger fees once they were already taking classes.
[A Federal Student Aid] investigation found GCU 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.
“GCU lied about the cost of its doctoral programs to attract students to enroll,” said FSA Chief Operating Officer Richard Cordray. “FSA takes its oversight responsibilities seriously. GCU’s lies harmed students, broke their trust, and led to unexpectedly high levels of student debt. Today, we are holding GCU accountable for its actions, protecting students and taxpayers, and upholding the integrity of the federal student aid programs.”
Grand Canyon University advertised its doctoral programs as costing anywhere from $40,000 - $49,000. That was meant to cover a variety of programs that require students to complete 60 credit hours and write a dissertation. In reality, however, fewer than 2% of students paid that amount because they had to take more classes to complete their degrees. Most students (78%) ended up paying nearly 25% above that sticker price in order to take necessary “continuation courses,” amounting to an additional $10,000-$12,000 per student, between 2017 and 2022.
Furthermore, the Department of Education explains, the fictional tuition cost was stated on GCU’s website, it’s enrollment agreement, the “Net Price Calculator,” and other marketing materials.
Just consider this one example: If you were interested in getting your Ph.D. in Psychology (or, more technically, your “Doctor of Philosophy in General Psychology: Cognition and Instruction (Qualitative Research)”), this is what the school’s website would show you:
That says it would take 60 credit hours at a cost of $725 per credit. If you do the math, it’s $43,500. What isn’t clear from that page is that just about all students need to take additional courses to get that degree, and even if you knew that, the cost of those extra credits isn’t clear anywhere on the site.
Even more damning? The DoE writes that “internal emails indicate that GCU leadership has been aware since at least January 2017 that its disclosures regarding cost were incomplete or misleading.”
GCU officials insisted they weren’t lying at all and that the additional fees were mentioned to students via “fine print disclosures” and other documents, but the government said that’s not an acceptable excuse. In addition to the $37,735,000 fine, the government is also demanding that GCU stop lying about the cost of a doctoral degree and “engage a monitor” to make sure the school is complying with the law.
The reason the government is allowed to levy this fine at all is because GCU, despite being a private Christian school, receives over $1.1 billion in Title IV funding (i.e. federal financial aid). The Department of Education has every right, then, to make sure those funds are being used as intended. The report says that, as we speak, more than $18 million in federal funds has been given to 1,344 students enrolled in GCU doctoral programs. 7,547 students have gone through GCU’s doctoral programs since 2018, resulting in over $122 million in tuition.
The DoE is actually going easy on the school. According to its own letter, they could have instituted a fine of over $509 million, roughly $67,500 for each of 7,547 violations found. But the actual $37.7 million fine brings that down to a mere $5,000 per violation, reflecting on the fact “that the violations identified did not impact all of GCU’s programs and students, but rather were confined to doctoral programs requiring a dissertation.”
The school is predictably insisting it did nothing wrong, dismissing the allegations as a series of “lies and deceptive statements.” Officials are also acting like this is anti-Christian persecution.
GCU “categorically denies every accusation in the Department of Education’s statement,” a press release explains, adding that this fine is “further evidence of the coordinated and unjust actions the federal government is taking against the largest Christian university in the country.”
There’s nothing anti-Christian going on here. The letter documenting the alleged violations makes no mention of the school’s faith-based foundations because those are irrelevant. The only concern is the discrepancy between stated costs and real ones.
For now, GCU has about three weeks to appeal the fine (through a formal hearing or in writing). But if the punishment stands and the school refuses to pay it, it’s possible the federal government could withhold loans from anyone who wants to go there, which would destroy the school’s ability to attract students. That means this issue will have to be resolved one way or the other.
This isn’t the first time GCU has fought the government.
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 investors saved it from financial collapse. It applied to become a nonprofit again in 2018 but the Trump administration blocked the move, saying the college remained too close to its previous parent company.
It’s considered a nonprofit by its accreditor and the Internal Revenue Service.
This is also part of a larger, vital push by the federal government to protect students from predatory schools:
The Biden administration is issuing the fine amid a broader push for accountability among U.S. universities. The Education Department recently finalized a new regulation that could cut federal funding to for-profit college programs that leave graduated unable to repay loans, and the agency plans to give students and families more information about outcomes from all colleges.
All GCU has to do is tell the truth and let students know the actual cost of obtaining a degree from the school. If 98% of doctoral students are paying a higher-than-listed price for their degree, than the estimated price is clearly a lie. The government is right to go after any school, religious or otherwise, that misleads students like this.