Norton Norris Report Highlights Serious Flaws in Misleading Government Accountability Office Investigation into For-Profit Colleges

-Review Demonstrates Clear Bias, Flawed Methodology and Poor Analysis on the part of GAO-

CHICAGO--()--In a report released today, Norton | Norris, Inc. (Nn), a leading marketing and consulting firm focused on the education sector, found that in a 2010 study the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) failed to properly conduct its investigation and analysis of the for-profit college industry, directly leading to disingenuous and erroneous conclusions. As a result, the GAO put forth a study that was incorrectly critical of the for-profit college sector.

Nn investigators determined that the GAO inappropriately conducted, analyzed and reported on its undercover testing of 15 for-profit colleges. Of the 65 original findings in the GAO study of misconduct, Nn found only 14 to be credible (an additional 14 cannot be confirmed due to lack of publicly available materials). Nn investigation took place after the GAO had already significantly amended their original report by retracting or revising many of the most serious accusations. Nn spent a total of 164 hours reviewing 25 audio recordings from GAO’s investigation and comparing them to the findings reported in the updated GAO report.

“GAO’s bias is widespread throughout all aspects of this investigation from start to finish,” said Dr. Jean Norris, co-researcher on the Nn report. “The lack of basic knowledge regarding college admissions and financial aid practices along with inaccurate reporting of conversations in order to skew facts is astonishing. Instead of using enrollment and financial aid experts to analyze the tapes, the GAO clearly rushed their report and included factually incorrect information.”

The report, commissioned by the Coalition for Educational Success, is a comprehensive review of the GAO study that was critical of the for-profit college sector. The GAO study has been touted as irrefutable evidence of systemic problems in the for-profit education sector. The U.S. Department of Education (DoE) and the U.S. Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) used the report and testimony by the GAO to aggressively pursue the for-profit college sector resulting in substantial damage to college reputations and revenue.

Nn found flagrant errors and misrepresentations even after the GAO issued the heavily amended and revised version of the study in November 2010. In fact, only 25% of GAO findings can be supported by audio recordings when factoring out the missing recordings. The other 41 alleged findings were not valid and serve no meaningful purpose to be included in the GAO report.

Examples of the GAO’s lack of understanding and sometimes sloppy or invalid conclusions include:

  • Throughout their report, the GAO shows it does not understand the difference between an academic year and a calendar year. As a result, five of their findings regarding program length and cost are completely wrong and do not even merit mention in the report. This is a prime example of an agency that does not understand the education sector.
  • In one case, the GAO reports that an undercover applicant was told that getting a job “was a piece of cake” and that graduates from this school are making $120,000 to $130,000 per year. There is no evidence of this conversation in the recording.
  • During another visit (mystery shop) the question of graduation rate was NEVER raised by the undercover agent but the report indicates a different scenario and states: “The college representative did not tell the graduation rate when asked directly.” This conversation simply does not exist on the recording.
  • In an attempt to paint a college as “over-promising” expected earnings at graduation, the original GAO report stated the undercover applicant could make up to $100 an hour. The revised GAO report adjusts this down to $30 an hour. But the complete recording reveals that later in the discussion the admissions representatives is clear that earnings are based on experience, the undercover applicant is given a data sheet and the admissions rep states that minimum average rate per hour for massage therapists in their area is $22. The GAO never reports this last accurate piece of information.
  • An admission representative thoroughly explains student loans and the importance of financial responsibility. The admissions representative even suggests the undercover applicant borrow less than what they need. However, the original GAO report as well as a revised version from November 2010 ignores these statements. Instead, they focus solely on another statement offered during the conversation regarding the undercover applicant’s ability to take out the maximum in loans.

“As a result of our review, we believe that the conclusions reached by GAO are not valid. There is no question the GAO misrepresented many conversations and explanations from their investigation to fit their needs. Fragments of discussions were extracted to embellish and even fabricate their claims of deceptive and questionable behavior,” added Vince Norton, co-researcher on the Nn report.

The DOE, along with HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin and other allies have repeatedly reported incorrectly that all 15 schools investigated by GAO had violations thereby constituting systemic issues in the sector. To the contrary, the Nn review reveals only seven out of 15 schools have any valid findings.

Nn found that few violations actually took place and those that did are addressed under existing laws or regulations that currently govern career colleges. Importantly, according to the report, the proposed “gainful employment” rule does not address the violations that took place in the GAO investigation. “Despite claims to the contrary, none of the few valid violations that actually took place would be addressed by the proposed gainful employment rule,” said Dr. Norris. “Continued attempts to tie gainful employment to the GAO report only represent continued bias.”

Nn reviewed the GAO report for accuracy and then compared the source recordings to typical marketing and recruitment practices used in both for-profit and non-profit educational institutions. The process used by the GAO was also reviewed against best practices in college mystery shopping and professional standards of conduct including the standards prescribed by the President’s Council on Integrity and Efficiency (PCIE).

The full report is available at

About Norton | Norris, Inc.

Norton | Norris, Inc. (Nn) is a Chicago-based marketing, advertising and training company focused on the higher education sector. For more information, please visit


Norton | Norris, Inc.
Gayle Kansagor, 202-295-8775


Norton | Norris, Inc.
Gayle Kansagor, 202-295-8775