Grand Canyon University fined for understating the cost of certain degrees

The fine is the largest of its kind so far. School officials said the agencies’ actions were related to the school’s religious affiliation and the school’s efforts to regain its nonprofit status.

The federal Education Department will fine Arizona-based Grand Canyon University $37.7 million for “deceiving” students in the marketing of doctoral degrees, officials said Tuesday.

The news comes after GCU President Brian Mueller publicly complained about the investigation in early October, accusing the Department of Education of coordinating with other federal agencies to “unfairly target” his school.

School officials suggested the agencies’ actions were related to the school’s religious affiliation and a long-running dispute between GCU and the federal Department of Education over the school’s efforts to regain its nonprofit status. GCU is one of the largest private Christian universities in the country.

On Tuesday, federal regulators rejected that narrative. They said their investigation found that GCU misrepresented the cost of its doctoral degrees, with most students paying thousands of dollars more than the advertised price.

Fewer than 2 percent of students who graduated from GCU’s dissertation-requiring doctoral programs paid the amount the university announced as the total cost, federal regulators said.

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The largest fine of its kind

The fine is the largest of its kind ever imposed by the department, according to federal officials. The agency also added new terms to an agreement that allows GCU to participate in federal student aid programs, including a provision that would require the school to hire a monitor to ensure its advertising complies with federal law.

“GCU lied about the cost of its doctoral programs to get students to enroll,” said Richard Cordray, chief operating officer of the U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid. “The FSA takes its oversight responsibilities seriously. GCU’s lies harmed students, shattered their confidence, and led to unexpectedly high levels of student debt. Today, we hold GCU accountable for its actions, protecting students and taxpayers and maintaining the integrity of federal student aid programs.

In a statement, GCU said it “strongly denies any allegation in the Department for Education statement and will take all necessary measures to defend itself against these false allegations”. He reiterated that he had previously disputed the inquiry’s findings and said the fine “is further evidence of the coordinated and unfair actions the federal government is taking against the nation’s largest Christian university.”

GCU also said it provides more disclosures than required by law, pointing to tools like its online degree program calculator.

Grand Canyon University is the largest recipient of federal financial aid dollars, receiving more than $1 billion in the 2020-21 academic year, federal records show. The university said in August it would enroll more than 118,000 students this year, with 25,800 studying in person and another 92,000 enrolled online.

During a hastily planned staff meeting in early October, he encouraged staff and others associated with the school to contact federal lawmakers in defense of the university.

Several Republican state lawmakers sent a letter to the Department of Education last week accusing it of conducting a “witch hunt against Christian education.”

GCU has 20 days to request a hearing with the Department of Education’s Office of Hearings and Appeals or submit written material stating why the fine should not be imposed.

In addition to the fine, the Department imposed special conditions on the school to continue participating in federal student aid programs.

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Sasha Hupka covers higher education for The Arizona Republic. Do you have any advice? Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on X, formerly Twitter: @SashaHupka. Follow her on Instagram or Threads: @sashahupkasnaps.

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