Largest Christian university in US faces record fine after federal probe into alleged deception

The Jerry Colangelo Museum at Grand Canyon University is shown in 2017 at at dusk in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York, File)

WASHINGTON — The country’s largest Christian university is being fined $37.7 million by the federal government amid accusations that it misled students about the cost of its graduate programs.

Grand Canyon University, which has more than 100,000 students, mostly in online programs, faces the largest fine of its kind ever issued by the U.S. Education Department. The university dismissed the allegations as “lies and deceptive statements.”

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“Grand Canyon University categorically denies every accusation in the Department of Education’s statement and will take all measures necessary to defend itself from these false accusations,” the school said in a five-page statement.

An Education Department investigation found that Grand Canyon lied to more than 7,500 current and former students about the cost of its doctoral programs.

As far back as 2017, the university told students its doctoral programs would cost between $40,000 and $49,000. The department found that less than 2% of graduates completed programs within the range, with 78% paying an additional $10,000 to $12,000.

The additional cost often came from “continuation courses” that were needed to finish dissertation requirements, the department said.

“GCU’s lies harmed students, broke their trust and led to unexpectedly high levels of student debt,” said Richard Cordray, chief operating officer for Federal Student Aid, an office in the Education Department. “Today, we are holding GCU accountable for its actions, protecting students and taxpayers, and upholding the integrity of the federal student aid programs.”

The Biden administration is issuing the fine amid a broader push for accountability among U.S. universities. The Education Department recently finalized a new regulation that could cut federal funding to for-profit college programs that leave graduated unable to repay loans, and the agency plans to give students and families more information about outcomes from all colleges.

Grand Canyon has 20 days to appeal the fine. The department is also adding new conditions the school must meet to continue receiving federal money.

The school will be barred from making “substantial misrepresentations” about the cost of doctoral programs, and if it tell students about the cost of doctoral programs, it must use the average cost paid by graduates.

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