FTC Sues Grand Canyon University for Deceptive Advertising and Illegal Telemarketing

The Federal Trade Commission has filed suit against Grand Canyon Education (GCE), Inc., Grand Canyon University (GCU), and Brian Mueller—the CEO of GCE and president of GCU—for deceiving prospective doctoral students about the cost and course requirements of its doctoral programs and about being a nonprofit, while also engaging in deceptive and abusive telemarketing practices.

In a complaint filed in federal court, the FTC says that GCU and GCE told prospective students that the total cost of GCU’s “accelerated” doctoral programs was equal to the cost of just 20 courses (or 60 credits). In reality, the school requires that almost all doctoral students take additional “continuation courses” that add thousands of dollars in costs. The U.S. Department of Education reported that fewer than 2% of GCU doctoral program graduates completed their program within the cost that GCU advertises, and almost 78% of these students take five or more continuation courses.

The FTC’s complaint also says that, despite operating the school for the profit of GCE and its investors, the defendants deceptively marketed the school as a nonprofit. The FTC alleges that GCU has been operated for the profit of GCE and its stockholders, and pays 60% of its revenue to GCE pursuant to an agreement designating GCE as the exclusive provider for most university-related services. Even though he serves as GCU’s president, Mueller also benefits as both CEO and a stockholder of GCE, and receives bonuses tied to GCE’s performance. 

“Grand Canyon deceived students by holding itself out as a non-profit institution and misrepresenting the costs and number of courses required to earn doctoral degrees,” said Samuel Levine, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “We will continue to aggressively pursue those who seek to take advantage of students.”

The defendants also used abusive telemarketing calls to try to boost enrollment at GCU, according to the complaint. GCE advertised on websites and social media urging prospective students to submit their contact information on digital forms. GCE telemarketers then used the information to illegally contact people who have specifically requested not to be called, as well as people on the National Do Not Call Registry. GCE has also made illegal calls to numbers it purchased from lead generators.  

The FTC says the defendants’ deceptive claims and abusive telemarketing calls violated the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule and asks the court to provide redress to consumers and prohibit the institution from further violations of the law.

The Commission vote authorizing the staff to file the complaint was 3-0. The complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona.

NOTE: The Commission files a complaint when it has “reason to believe” that the named defendants are violating or are about to violate the law and it appears to the Commission that a proceeding is in the public interest. The case will be decided by the court.

The lead staff attorneys on this matter are Michael Tankersley, Naomi Takagi, and Brian Berggren of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

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