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For-profit college lied about requirements for doctorate program, student tells 11th Circuit

By advertising that a doctorate degree can be obtained in 60 credit hours, Grand Canyon University is accused of unfairly boosting profits at the expense of students and the federal government.

ATLANTA (CN) — The 11th Circuit heard oral arguments Thursday over whether a for-profit university based in Phoenix misleads students into believing they can get a doctorate degree after completing just 60 credit hours.

Donrich Young, who enrolled in a Grand Canyon University online doctoral program in 2015, argues that the necessary guidance and resources were not made available to allow him to complete his degree within the minimum 60 credit-hour format represented in the college's advertising.

Six other students originally joined Young in suit against the university in 2019, but the district court quickly dismissed them on the basis that it lacked jurisdiction over their claims.

U.S. District Judge Timothy C. Batten, appointed by George W. Bush, sided with Grand Canyon University and dismissed all of Young's claims last year.

This is the second time Young has brought his appeal before the 11th Circuit, which reversed and remanded the district court's order compelling arbitration of his claims.

The university's attorney Derin Dickerson wrote in a brief to the Atlanta-based appeals court that Grand Canyon only provides the opportunity to complete a doctoral program with 60 credits and doesn't promise a student will be able to do so.

"The time it takes a student to complete a doctoral degree program varies for reasons unique to each student, including the student’s dissertation strategy, the student’s approach to her chosen topic, and the student’s aptitude and academic background," the brief states.

In regards to Young's breach of contract allegations, U.S. Circuit Judge Robin Rosenbaum, appointed by Barack Obama, said in Thursday's hearing that she interprets the university's dissertation milestone table's representation of 60 credit hours as being merely the minimal or optimal required amount.

However, Young's attorney Edward Webb argued that this is an unattainable reality because the university fails to "provide its doctoral students the ‘individualized support’ needed to timely complete a dissertation," and to "work directly with doctoral candidates to complete his or her dissertation in a timely manner,” as promised in its academic catalog.

According to Young's brief, the dissertation courses are not actual academic classes, but profess to provide individualized academic support by their dissertation chair and committee members. When students do not complete their dissertation by the end of their first three dissertation courses, the university requires students such as Young to take what are referred to as “research continuation” courses in addition to the already completed 60 credit hours.

Young argues that despite representations of students being able to complete the doctoral program within the minimum time frame, many students end up spending additional time and money on taking these "research continuation" courses through the university's “refusal to provide meaningful guidance to its doctoral students” in good faith.

Even if the court rules that there was no breach of contract, Webb claims that the covenant of good faith and fair dealing can still be violated under Arizona law.

While the district court wrote "the duty of good faith arises from the language of a contract but extends beyond its express conditions," quoting prior precedent from in Rawlings v. Apodaca, it also ruled that Young's allegations were insufficient.

"In a doctorate program, isn't there an implicit promise that someone will review and guide you through your dissertation?" U.S. Circuit Judge Adalberto Jordan, an Obama appointee, asked Dickerson.

Dickerson agreed that there are implicit contractual obligations within the university's enrollment program, and despite his argument that Young's allegations are "too conclusory" for not specifying when, who and how the university failed to provide the necessary support resources, he agreed with Jordan that not doing so would be a breach.

"It's an interactive process and if you don't provide one end of that process you've breached a covenant of good faith a fair dealing," Jordan said.

Senior U.S. District Judge John Steele, a Bill Clinton appointee sitting by designation from the Middle District of Florida, rounded out the 11th Circuit panel. The judges did not signal when they intend to release a decision.

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