Government Investigates High School Diploma Mills

Government investigators are pursuing high school diploma mills, which, for a fee, give high school dropouts diplomas or answers to the tests that enable them to enroll in college and qualify for federal financial aid.

In testimony before a congressional panel on Wednesday, George Scott, a director of the Education, Workforce, and Income Security division of the Government Accountability Office, played secretly made audiotapes of a test proctor apparently giving students the answers to college-qualifying tests.

The tapes were made by investigators looking into for-profit colleges. Scott said the investigators walked into Washington, D.C.-area offices of a publicly traded for-profit college and told the admissions officers that they did not have high school diplomas but wanted to enroll. Scott did not identify the colleges or testing companies his agency investigated.

Normally, colleges don’t admit students who haven’t graduated from high school. To qualify for federal financial aid, students without diplomas or GED certifications must pass tests to show they have enough language and math skills to ensure their "ability to benefit" (often abbreviated as "ATB") from a college education. ATB tests are supposed to be given by companies or proctors who have no connections to colleges, so that there is no incentive to improperly pass students.

But the college under investigation, apparently eager to get more paying students, directed the agents to a test center at which a proctor gave answers to three of 10 questions.

The GAO also provided examples of tests that the investigators had purposely failed yet someone had "corrected" to make sure they passed and qualified for college and aid.

Scott said the investigators also heard from other students at for-profit schools that they had been directed to online high school diploma mills so they could win admission and qualify for federal aid.

Scott said the evidence has been passed on to the U.S. Department of Education, which will decide whether or not to press for prosecution.

Harris Miller, spokesman for the Career College Association, which represents many for-profit colleges, noted that the GAO investigation did not find widespread abuse. In addition, he said, his group sends out "mystery shoppers" to members’ admissions offices, to make sure all rules are obeyed. Many for-profit colleges have higher job placement and graduation rates than many traditional public or private nonprofit colleges, he added.

High school diploma mills are problems for all kinds of schools that serve nontraditional students, not just for-profits. Miller says bogus ATB tests have become such a problem for his members that some are now starting to reject applicants who’ve supposedly passed those tests. "They are cutting back on ATB students because of concerns about loan default rates and failure to graduate. I’m not sure that is good for our society" because it denies eager students chances to get training and opportunities, Miller says.

In separate testimony, Mary Mitchelson, acting inspector general of the U.S. Department of Education, said her office currently has 15 ongoing investigations related to ATB tests. The office also is investigating online high schools that appear to be selling diplomas. In 2007, she said, a for-profit college provided an undercover investigator who was pretending to apply with the answers to a graduation test given by an online high school. The investigation has since identified at least 13 potentially bogus online high schools that have granted at least 9,500 diplomas since 2005, she said. She said she was concerned because 11 percent of all federal financial aid dollars—more than $5 billion in Pell grants and more than $7 billion in federal student loans—goes to students who don’t have diplomas or GEDs, or aren’t certified as home-schooled, and thus are likely to have used ATB tests or other alternatives to qualify for college and aid.

Rep. George Miller, the California Democrat who heads the House Committee on Education and Labor, said he was shocked by the evidence of fraud. "This reminds me of the ‘liar loans’ that helped create the housing bubble, he said. Some schools "know these students don’t have the ability to benefit" from a college education but are recruiting people who are "desperate for an education and better jobs . . . . They pass rigged tests and take on debts—in some cases high-interest debts—and they don’t thrive. Now they end up defaulting, with ruined credit reports, and all their problems got worse."

Robert Shireman, a deputy undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Education, said in his testimony that the online high schools and testing agencies have been slipping through regulatory cracks, but that the department was now in negotiations to draft tighter rules.


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