Goldwater Institute Sues Department of Education over ‘Unprecedented’ $37 Million Fine Assessed Against Arizona’s Christian Grand Canyon University

Grand Canyon University

The Goldwater Institute (GI) sued the U.S. Department of Education last week over fining Grand Canyon University (GCU) almost $40 million.

The fine was purportedly for “insufficiently inform[ing] PhD students that they may have to take continuing courses while completing their doctoral dissertations,” GI said in a press release. GI noted that the $37 million fine against the Christian university “is 10 times bigger than penalties the Education Department assessed against Penn State and Michigan State for covering up the sexual crimes of Jerry Sandusky and Larry Nassar.”

GI stated in a press release, “[W]hy are the feds targeting GCU, a popular university that seems to be doing everything right? That’s exactly what we’re going to find out.”

GI noted that “the federal government did not cite any student’s complaints, nor did Education Department personnel even visit GCU as part of their purported ‘investigation.’” GI said the government’s press release announcing the fine was “heavy on rhetoric” and that the fine was likely “assessed in conjunction with suspicious coordination among various federal agencies.”

The institute initially submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the federal government asking for more emails that were exchanged and other documents, but the Department of Education refused to turn them over. GI’s complaint went over the back-and-forth exchanges that occurred between itself and the government, which consisted of the government saying why it could not turn over the documents, such as stating that they were too voluminous and would take time to compile.

However, the government provided no estimated completion date. “That response … was legally deficient because it did not state whether a determination had been made regarding the Request, nor did it provide a time by which the requested records would be produced,” GI said in the complaint.

The institute filed the complaint 47 days after the last exchange.

GCU appealed the fine in November 2023. In an article published in November 2023, the university laid out how it informs potential doctoral students that they will need to take additional classes.

“GCU’s disclosure is in full-size red type and placed above the Degree Program Calculator (DPC) calculation in order to bring attention to it,” the school said.

This refutes the government’s contention that the notification is in “fine print” and “false advertising,” GCU said.

“GCU does not mislead or deceive students in any way,” said GCU President Brian Mueller. “In fact, the opposite is true given that GCU goes above and beyond what is legally required and is considered by its peers to be a leader in higher education transparency. Rather than applaud such efforts or work cooperatively with GCU in a matter that could easily be resolved in a 10-minute phone call, the Department has instead chosen to impose a record fine, which speaks to their agenda and motivations.”

GCU said a lawsuit had already addressed and dismissed the same issue. In Young v GCU, both the trial court and an appeals court rejected the claim that GCU’s disclosures misrepresented the time or cost to complete a doctoral program. Similarly, the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), which is GCU’s accrediting body, stated in 2021, after reviewing the experiences of doctoral students, “The information and resources provided are robust and thorough, providing prospective students a clear picture of their academic and financial path toward a degree at GCU.”

Many institutions of higher learning do not list exhaustive costs for their doctoral programs. GCU looked into publicly available information from other universities and found that “only 2% of universities show total program cost for doctoral programs, 51% either failed to disclose anything about the need for additional courses needed to complete a dissertation or were unclear about them, and 45% made statements that a doctoral degree could be earned in a set number of years (varying from 2-8) despite the varying length of time needed to complete a dissertation.”

A study released in November 2022 by the federal government’s General Accounting Office (GAO) found that “91% of the colleges reviewed have misleading information or understate the net price in their financial aid offers to prospective students.”

Mueller said the two studies reveal “the selective enforcement from the Department in singling out GCU. We maintain that not only is there nothing misleading about GCU’s disclosures but that we provide higher levels of transparency than are observed in higher education. In short, we are taking a leadership role in this issue.”

GCU, which was founded in 1949, is rapidly expanding but has not raised tuition for its students in 15 years. Students are paying back their loans at rates better than the national average, and “[o]n average, GCU bachelor’s degree students graduate with significantly less debt than students at other private universities and about the same as heavily subsidized state universities,” the university said.

GI has compiled more information about the case here, and GCU’s response refuting the fine is here.

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Rachel Alexander is a reporter at The Arizona Sun Times and The Star News NetworkFollow Rachel on Twitter / X. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Grand Canyon University Campus” by Grand Canyon University.




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