Minnesota education officials have launched a review of online PhD programs at a for-profit college with ties to former President Bill Clinton.
"We have seen an increased number of complaints related to dissertations at Walden University," Sandy Connolly of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education (MOHE) told NBC News.
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The review follows an NBC News report on Minneapolis-based Walden, including interviews with some students who felt victimized by its practices and were saddled with large student loans.
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Walden is the U.S. flagship of Laureate Education, which paid "honorary chancellor" Bill Clinton $17.6 million over five years before he stepped down in 2015 just ahead of wife Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign run.
Elizabeth Talbot, manager of Institutional Legislation and Licensing at the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, said the agency is conducting "a qualitative and a quantitative analysis" of student complaints and comparing it to Walden's marketing materials.
"I want to make sure the proof is in the pudding that their marketing claims match with student outcome," Talbot said.
"Is it a policy issue, a culture issue or is it something more nefarious? And we don’t know until we complete the program review.”
She said that after the NBC News report in August, there was an increase in the number of individuals contacting her office and the state Attorney General's office about Walden.
Some of the Walden students interviewed by NBC claimed they were misled about how long it would take to get a dissertation approved and earn a doctorate and ended up with more debt than they anticipated.
Minnesota officials did not provide any details of the complaints it received, but Connolly said that based on the "number and nature" of them, "we are conducting a full program review of all online doctorate programs."
Dr. Kevin Kinser, head of Penn State's Department of Education and Policy Studies, said Minnesota's action is not surprising.
"What we've seen is state-level oversight, particularly of online, for-profit higher education, has become more robust — even more robust than the federal government, and certainly more than the accrediting agencies," Kinser said.
While Bill Clinton has earned $22 million from for-profit education institutions — $17.6 of that from Laureate — his wife has been a vocal critic of for-profit schools, including her opponent's Trump University.
"Hillary Clinton has made it clear that all for-profit institutions should be held to the same standards and she will crack down on law-breaking for-profits by expanding support for federal regulators to enforce laws against deceptive marketing, fraud, and other illegal practices," a spokesman said in August.
On Wednesday, two law firms filed a suit against Walden in the Southern District of Ohio on behalf of lead plaintiff LaTonya Thornhill, a former graduate student at Walden. Attorney Paul Lesko said Thornhill, who was a doctoral student in management from 2011 to 2015, reached out after the NBC News report aired, and the Lambert Law Firm and the Peiffer Rosca Wolf firm drew on the NBC story to aid their investigation.
Thornhill’s suit, which seeks class action status, alleges that Walden tells students they will complete a dissertation in 18 months and incur $70,000 in fees, when the time to complete the dissertation is much longer and the debt accrued much larger.
“Students who believed they were getting ever closer to obtaining their doctoral degree,” alleges the suit, “were in fact stuck with decreasing resources, high faculty turnover, disorganization and a lack of oversight, all of which increased the length of the doctoral students’ enrollments at Walden.”
In a statement, Walden President Jonathan Kaplan defended the school's "decades-long track record as one of the nation's leading universities committed to working professionals. Our multiple professional accreditations, extensive list of highly-regarded alumni, and continually low cohort default rates speak for themselves. We can't comment on pending litigation, but it is unfortunate that NBC News chose not to report that the lawsuit mentioned involves a single student and that the complaints to MOHE represent well under 1/10th of 1 percent of Walden's students."