I recently discussed the controversies involving for-profit “universities” associated with both Donald Trump and Bill Clinton. I have long been a critic of online programs and particularly for-profit universities. I have been vocal in my opposition to online courses at my law school, though many of my colleagues are highly supportive of the courses and their record. Now, a class action has been filed against George Washington University.
My criticism is that these online courses deny students the benefits of a traditional “brick-and-mortar” education and often produce a highly doctrinal and poor quality product. Students are denied the interaction with other students and teachers on campus. Online courses are on the rise with schools because they sell education (and degrees) at the lowest possible cost for schools. In my view, the trend will undermine traditional educational institutions and I have repeatedly objected that schools like GWU are courting their own demise in following for-profit companies in offering these online degrees.
Online programs offer universities a windfall in tuition with far less overhead and costs. The programs allow schools to maximize the number of students, minimize the involvement of faculty, and cash in on a market seeking more easily obtainable degrees. Clearly, these online courses accommodate many who work and cannot easily come to campus, even for evening programs. Moreover, some courses strive to offer high quality lesson plans and interactive programs. Yet, even in the best programs, students lose the critical dynamic of a classroom and experience on a campus with faculty and students. There is, in my opinion, greater depth and spontaneity in such classes. Finally, while online programs insist that they are competitive in terms of scores and graduation rates, those are not the metrics that define a top ranked education. Indeed, these programs are creating a two-tier educational system for the elite (who will attend traditional schools) and the remainder who will secure online degrees.
Four graduates of GW’s online master’s degree program in security and safety leadership filed a class-action lawsuit in the District of Columbia Superior Court. They allege that the “Security and Safety Leadership” is a fraudulent enterprise designed to take people’s money and supply substandard online offerings. They are suing the university for fraudulent and negligent misrepresentation, unjust enrichment and violation of D.C. consumer protection laws. The students describe the 16-month, 12-course program as low grade with little real participation by the instructor. The complaint states:
“The misrepresentations are designed to present the program as something that it is not: a credible, longstanding program, with courses and content specifically designed for the online learning environment. In reality, at the time the plaintiffs applied for the online program, there were no graduates of the program and the ‘content’ mostly consisted of scanned-in PDFs of textbooks (with blurry pages and sentences cut off) and PowerPoint slides taken from the in-class courses, without any narration or explication.”
The description of the shallow course materials and low faculty involvement in the program mirror the objections that many of us have raised for years about online courses. GWU President Steven Knapp was sent a letter from roughly a dozen students saying that they felt “cheated out of the quality education that attracted [them] to GWU.” Reportedly, the university expressed regret but the students alleged that GWU did “nothing to rectify the situation.”
What is particularly surprising is that the online program costs an estimated $33,000. That is reportedly $4,000 more than a traditional education, which (in my view) is manifestly superior for the education of students.
In defense of the program, Candace Smith, assistant vice president of media relations, insisted that “Since the security and safety leadership program began in 2009, 341 students have graduated, and many have gone onto successful careers in the military, law enforcement and other government agencies.” That is not a complete response to the concerns of course over the quality of such programs. The university obviously will have its day on court and an opportunity to refute these allegations. However, for those of us who believe that GWU is eviscerating its reputation with such degree programs, the lawsuit is a matter of considerable concern. In the end, I believe that the quick infusion of revenue sought by GWU and other universities will come at a prohibitive cost. It puts this school in the same league as Laureate University, University of Phoenix, and for-profit companies. The desire to maximize our revenue will ultimately succeed in devaluing our reputation. In the end, we will be competing with the lowest quality programs, including online programs for law school courses. Indeed, while this is portrayed as a new model or “alternative education,” it seems little more than a technological upgrade to correspondence courses that once offered degrees to people who wanted to be educated by mail.
Once again, in fairness to those who advocate online courses or programs (including colleagues on my law school faculty), there are many who view the Internet as the new reality of education. The fear is that schools like GWU must either yield to the market demand or risk the gradual loss of revenue (with corresponding rising costs). There are also great differences in the quality of programs or courses. Finally, some of my colleagues view critics like myself as a bit of academic dinosaurs unwilling to recognize new technologies and new realities in education. Most importantly, GW has a right to be heard fully on these allegations in defense of its programs.
With the permission of the university, I am including the statement sent to faculty by the head of this program:
You may be aware that four graduates of GW’s College of Professional
Studies recently filed a lawsuit against GW claiming that they
experienced certain problems with the Security and Safety Leadership
Program during the 2012-2013 period.
Please be aware that the university disagrees with these former
students’ allegations and does not believe they have any valid legal
claims against GW. Consistent with its standard procedures, the
university will respond to the allegations in the legal papers it
files and related court proceedings.
Please also be aware that the Security and Safety Leadership Program
has been extremely worthwhile for many of our students. Since the
program began in 2009, 341 students have graduated, and many have gone
on to challenging and rewarding careers in the military, in law
enforcement, and with intelligence agencies. The quality and
reputation of our program continue to attract faculty members who are
accomplished leaders in the field of homeland security.
In closing, I want to assure you that the university is fully
committed to the success of this program. We are pleased that each of
our faculty members and students has placed their confidence in the
university and we will continue to work very hard to ensure that we
If you have any questions or concerns, do not hesitate to contact me.
Professor and Program Director
College of Professional Studies
The George Washington University