The Department of Education’s “Secret Shoppers”

A new strategy to address the higher-ed mess.

Students around the country pay top dollar and take on mountains of debt to earn a degree. They hope doing so will pay dividends in the future. But some colleges and universities misrepresent themselves, or even outright lie. After all, what school doesn’t want to separate students from their money? Enter the U.S. Department of Education, which is attempting to crack down on these colleges with a tool straight out of the retail industry: secret shoppers.

Secret shoppers have been a means of evaluating customer service for decades. When businesses want to know if their employees are providing excellent goods and services in the manner employers wish, they can hire secret shoppers to experience what the average customer gets, then report back.

The current U.S. Department of Education announced in March that the enforcement division of the Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) will henceforth use this same tool to ensure that schools are not lying to students about key facts such as graduation rates, the transferability of credits, future earning potential, career services, and the cost of attendance.

The Biden administration is attempting to crack down on schools that lie to potential students.The Education Department will not focus on for-profit schools alone; however, these schools are often criticized for doing exactly what the secret-shopper program is hoping to stop. The Biden administration is attempting to crack down on schools that lie to potential students, especially ones that take advantage of federal student aid programs.

Secret-shopper findings may be used as evidence to support investigations into schools suspected of fraud. The FSA is also focused on protecting military students. According to the Education Department, schools that are treating students fairly have nothing to fear, while schools that engage in misconduct and fraud should be nervous. As Kristen Donoghue, FSA’s chief enforcement officer, said, “Schools that engage in fraud … are on notice that we may be listening, and they should clean up accordingly.”

While schools should certainly never misrepresent key facts to prospective students, higher-ed customers wouldn’t be able to take out excessive loans in the first place if federal dollars were not given out to students so freely. Nevertheless, the use of secret shoppers may well lead to fewer students drowning in debt with useless degrees. And it may lead, too, to fewer schools extracting taxpayer money through lies and deceit.

However, students should not just wait on the government to act. Instead, they ought to take proper precautions, do their own research, and exercise great care when considering going into debt to earn a degree.

Grace Hall is a communications assistant at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. She works and lives in Georgia.