A newly-published investigation into degree courses being sold online by Liberty University, the Trump-supporting evangelical Christian college founded by the now-late Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell, reveals that its courses ‘falls significantly short of American academic standards’.
But, according to this report, there’s not a lot the authorities can do because, unlike other online universities such as DeVry or the University of Phoenix, Liberty Online has secured a non-profit status, making it far more difficult for federal regulators to crack down.
The investigation, which shows that income from the sale of courses has funded Liberty’s luxurious campus – including a $7-million year-round ski resort and a new $3- million shooting range, was carried out by Alec MacGillis, and published by ProPublica/New York Times Magazine.
Liberty has about 11,000 on-campus students — and approximately 95,000 students enrolled in the distance-learning programme. According to MacGillis’s reporting, remote students are charged $455.00 (£324.00) per credit. Assuming that 120 credits are necessary for a bachelor’s degree, that’s a total degree cost of about $54,600.(£39,000).
Meanwhile, Liberty spends on average $2,609 per full-time student per year (on campus and off campus combined) — about a tenth of what, for example, a private university like Notre Dame spends.
By 2017, Liberty students were receiving more than $772-million (£551-million) in total aid from the Department of Education – nearly $100 million (£71.4-million) of it in the form of Pell grants and the rest in federal student loans. Among universities nationwide, it ranked sixth in federal aid. Liberty students also received Department of Veterans Affairs benefits, some $42 million (£30-million) in 2016, the most recent year for which figures are available.
Although some of that money went to textbooks and non-tuition expenses, a vast majority of Liberty’s total revenue that year, which was just above $1 billion, came from taxpayer-funded sources.
MacGillis reports extensively on Liberty’s aggressive sales tactics, using a 300-strong team of recruiters and a $16.8-million (£12-00) million Google advertising budget to target potential students before their for-profit competitors do:
At the front lines are the “admissions representatives,” some 300 phone recruiters working two shifts from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., deploying call lists that Liberty gets from websites where people register and search for information about online higher education, like BestCollegesOnline.com.
There is such a race to get to customers before University of Phoenix and other rivals that the prospective students sometimes marvel at how little time has elapsed – just a handful of minutes – between their providing their information on a website and the call coming from Liberty. Liberty’s tax filings show that in 2016, the university paid Google $16.8 million for “admissions leads generation.” …
They get no more than 45 seconds between calls, and sometimes managers override even that short break. There are no formal quotas – a federal regulation that went into effect in 2011 forbids them. But as one former employee put it, the “highly motivated goal” is for each recruiter to sign up eight new students a day. Multiplied across 300 cubicles, that is 2,400 per day.
But students who have been convinced to sign up for Liberty, MacGillis reports, have little recourse when things go wrong. The Obama-era crackdown on for-profit degree mills – including requirements that graduates be able to attain “gainful employment” – only served to help Liberty’s enrollment numbers by putting many of its competitors out of business.
And new Trump-era policies under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have only made things easier for Liberty; DeVos is expected to roll back Obama-era regulations establishing higher standards for online-only learning.
Liberty isn’t the only evangelical institution whose non-profit status allows it to operate with less financial transparency than it would otherwise. Just this year, the conservative lobbying group Focus on the Family — which heavily advocates for anti-LGBTQ and anti–sex education policies, among others – filed its 2017 taxes as a church, allowing it to avoid laws about financial disclosure and to, for example, claim property tax exemption for its “clergy”.
Whether the federal government intends to crack down on this intersection of religion and finance remains to be seen. But Trump’s repeated invocation of his desire to repeal the Johnson Amendment – a provision prohibiting 501(c)(3) nonprofits, including churches, from explicitly endorsing political candidates – suggests that as far as the Trump administration is concerned, religious institutions should be granted as much tax-related leeway as possible.
Read MacGillis’s full article here.