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Lawsuit: Online university drags out degrees to maximize profit

Walden University and its Baltimore-based parent company deliberately prolong students’ efforts to obtain graduate degrees online in order to maximize tuition revenue, according to a lawsuit seeking class-action status.

Laureate Education Inc. and Walden also fail to “honestly and transparently represent … the true cost and time necessary” for master’s and doctoral students to complete their degrees, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. The plaintiffs cite “logistical problems” caused by rapid enrollment growth and “rampant faculty retention issues” as primary factors in prolonging the degree programs.

Both master’s and doctoral candidates must nominate a supervisory committee for their work, a two-member panel hears and approves proposals as well as the final paper, the lawsuit states. But students may spend “multiple months” trying to find even one faculty member to serve on their committees, the lawsuit states.

“Even worse, once the faculty members agree to serve in the roles of dissertation or thesis supervisory committee chair and member, they frequently quit, are fired, or stop responding to the student,” the lawsuit states. “Retention of committee chairs and committee members is a systemic, institutional issue that is not regulated whatsoever by Walden University.”

Some supervisory committee members also do not abide by a university policy requiring them to respond to requests from students for commentary or feedback within 14 business days, according to the complaint.

In a statement, Walden University said it does not comment on specific legal matters but noted research showing obtaining a doctorate can be a “long and rigorous process.” The university has more nearly 50,000 across the country and world and offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. Walden is the flagship online university of Laureate, whose network includes more than 80 universities in 29 countries and online.

“We are extremely proud of Walden’s 45-year commitment to offering doctoral programs at a distance to working professionals balancing multiple commitments and doing so with a demonstrated track record of low cohort default rates and exceptional career advancement of our graduates,” the statement reads.

According to the complaint, one plaintiff, a doctoral student in psychology, paid more than $16,000 for dissertation courses over six college quarters — yet she remains at the proposal stage of her dissertation because some of her committee members resigned from the faculty while others did not responded to her requests for advice. The woman was forced to take a leave of absence from Walden due to financial issues, according to the lawsuit.

Another student began pursuing her Ph.D. in psychology in 2009 but is no closer to obtaining her degree six years later because of “inexplicable delays,” according to the complaint filed last week. The woman paid for five dissertation courses but withdrew from Walden due to financial constraints, the lawsuit says.

Dissertation and thesis courses at Walden can cost as much as $3,000 per academic quarter, according to the lawsuit. The for-profit college saw its revenue grow from $190 million to nearly $380 million between 2006 and 2009, according to the lawsuit. Laureate’s annual revenue is $4 billion, more than triple the total before the company went private in 2007, according to Bloomberg.

The lawsuit seeks to define the class as all current or former Walden students who enrolled in and paid for dissertation or thesis courses in the last three years.

The plaintiffs, in addition to seeking class certification, seek damages for unjust enrichment, breach of contract and violations of the Maryland Consumer Protection Act, among other counts. The lawsuit asks the court to require Laureate and Walden to give up revenue earned through the “excessive” master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation coursework.

The plaintiffs are represented by Timothy F. Maloney and Matthew M. Bryant of Joseph, Greenwald & Laake P.A. in Greenbelt. Neither lawyer responded to a request for comment Thursday.

The case is Travis et al., v. Walden University, LLC et al., 1:15-cv-00235-MJG.