Two former Grand Canyon University students are suing the school, alleging that recruiters committed fraud by misrepresenting whether the school’s degrees would work properly in their home states.

The lawsuit was filed Thursday by attorney E. Adam Webb in Fulton County, Georgia. The students live in Georgia and West Virginia and attended GCU online.

Webb is seeking class-action status for the suit, claiming thousands of GCU students could similarly have been misled. The lawsuit includes online reviews that mention similar accreditation issues. 

This is the third lawsuit against GCU brought by Webb’s firm. One alleges GCU failed to refund tuition for people who drop classes, and the other alleges doctoral students were made to take excessive dissertation continuation classes.

Both of those suits, also filed in Georgia, are ongoing.

GCU spokesman Bob Romantic said the school did not have enough time to “properly investigate” the new claims, but that a “cursory review” showed the lawsuit “appears to be blatantly false and defamatory.”

“GCU has a robust state-by-state compliance program and it appears it was followed in both of these circumstances,” Romantic said. “Given sufficient time to review the complaint in detail, we expect to find further false and defamatory allegations.”

GCU is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, but certain courses of study have additional program-specific accreditations that some state licensing and certifying agencies require.

GCU, a private Christian university, converted back to nonprofit status in July 2018 after operating as a for-profit school for more than a decade. A for-profit venture affiliated with the university is still around, Grand Canyon Education Inc., provides services like marketing, accounting and human resources to GCU.

The school enrolls about 97,000 students in both online and in-person programs. About 20,000 of those students attend classes on campus. 

Student: Pursuing degree was ‘worthless’

Debra Austin attended GCU as an online doctoral student in educational leadership for more than three years,she said. She teaches elementary school in Georgia but wanted to get a higher degree so she could become a superintendent.

She said she learned from another student that her state may not recognize the degree as valid to upgrade her pay and certification, so she reached out to the Georgia Professional Standards Commission.

In 2017, the commission confirmed Austin’s fear: Her degree wouldn’t count because GCU’s program didn’t have the proper accreditation needed for Georgia’s standards. A copy of a letter from the commission was shared with The Republic.

“By the time I had found out, I had spent all this money and all this time for something that was worthless,” Austin told The Republic.

She took out about $65,000 in federal student loans pursuing the degree, the lawsuit states. 

But the bigger loss was the time she missedwith her family while working away on her classes, Austin said. 

“I can’t get back the time I spent away from my family, all the late nights,” Austin said.

She looked into transferring credits to other institutions, but the most any other program would take was one class, she said. She said her dream of becoming a superintendent is “dead in the water.”

“I can’t go through that again. Itwas too much,” Austin said.

Austin previously told her story about her issues with GCU to the Phoenix New Times in 2017. Romantic sent the same response the university provided to the publication at the time.

In that response, GCU said, “every student from Georgia is advised that this particular program does not meet the salary upgrade certification requirements under the Georgia Professional Standards Commission.”

The school’s enrollment agreement for Georgia students also includes that information, GCU said.

Claim: Degree wouldn’t work in Ohio

The second student, Tammy Baker, was pursuing a master’s in mental health counseling to become a licensed professional counselor in Ohio, the lawsuit states. Baker lives in West Virginia, near the state’s border with Ohio,according to the lawsuit.

She spent more than $14,000 in federal loans for GCU online classes before a coworker who got a degree from GCU informed her the program didn’t have the proper accreditation in Ohio, according to the lawsuit.

After several attempts to get GCU representatives to admit the lack of program accreditation, Baker finally got an answer, the lawsuit alleges.

In Ohio, professional counselors are required to have a graduate degree from a program accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs, the lawsuit states. GCU’s program is not accredited by the group.

“Mrs. Baker would never have enrolled at GCU if Defendants had not informed her that the program would meet all of her needs toward becoming a professional counselor,” the lawsuit states. “GCU should never have pushed her to enroll — or even allowed her to enroll — in a program that failed to meet any of her needs. GCU’s conduct was unethical, immoral and illegal.”

Students who have degrees from other programs can still apply to be a licensed professional counselor, the website of the oversight board for Ohio counselors says. 

In an email, Romantic said GCU has had “several graduates” of the master’s in professional counseling program who “have met the educational requirements required by Ohio to obtain professional license in that state.”

Baker attempted to transfer credits to other institutions but was unable to do so, according to the court filing. Instead, she returned to Marshall University, where she got her bachelor’s, to pursue a master’s in social work, according to the lawsuit.

Both students claim they attempted to get answers multiple times about accreditation from the advisers who recruited them to GCU but came up short.

The school “aggressively” markets its programs to students, often calling them many times to discuss potential enrollment, according to the lawsuit.

“They would never have enrolled at GCU if they had known the programs they were entering were not accredited,” the lawsuit states. “GCU knew Plaintiffs were being enrolled in programs that were worthless to them, but it proceeded to sign them up purely based on greed.”

Reach reporter Rachel Leingang by email at [email protected] or by phone at 602-444-8157, or find her on Twitter and Facebook.

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