COLUMBUS, Ohio (CN) — A class-action lawsuit claims for-profit Walden University misled doctoral students about how long it will take them to earn their degrees, drawing out the dissertation-approval process to milk them for more money.
"Walden does not act like a university (for-profit or otherwise). Rather, Walden acts like a for-profit corporation," lead plaintiff LaTonya Thornhill alleges.
The complaint, filed Wednesday in Southern Ohio federal court, contends that "Walden's marketing materials and recruiters misled its students that their mostly student-loan financed doctoral degrees would cost between $60,000-70,000 and take three years to complete," claiming that after their course work was done, "the dissertation process (the final hurdle to achieving a PhD) could take as little as 13 or 18 months."
Thornhill says her problems began after she finished her pre-dissertation course work.
"Instead of the promised 13 to 18-month dissertation period, the Walden dissertation process created an endless routine of hurdles and quarterly tuition payments. Students who believed they were getting ever closer to obtaining their doctoral degree 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," the 74-page lawsuit states.
According to complaint, as the dissertation process stretched from months to years, "Walden's promises of about $60,000-70,000 and 13 or 18 months to complete a dissertation became $100,000-200,000 of crushing debt, while the dissertation process dragged on for years."
For many students, the amount of their debt gave them "no choice but to un-enroll so that they could dedicate themselves full time to paying back their enormous student loans . . . without degrees to show for their work," the complaint states.
Although the recruiters and their pamphlets claimed the doctoral process would take about three years, Walden and its parent company Laureate Education allegedly knew it would take much longer.
Years after Thornhill "enrolled in the doctor of philosophy in management program, Laureate admitted Walden designed that program 'to take 66 months to complete,'" the complaint states.
Thornhill and the class claim that these facts were withheld prior to and during her enrollment.
The complaint alleges that Walden and Laureate also "admitted that only 33 percent of doctoral students who graduated, finished the program with the 66-month time frame."
That means less than 10 percent of the doctoral population at Walden would graduate each year, Thornhill claims.
Thornhill seeks class certification and damages for claims of fraud in the inducement, breach of contract and conversion.
She is represented by Alan Rosca of Peiffer Rosca Wolf Abdullah Carr & Kane in Cleveland, Paul Lesko of St. Louis, and Marnie Lambert of the Lambert Law Firm in Columbus.
Walden University did not return Courthouse News' phone and email requests for comment Friday.
According to an NBC News report, Minnesota officials are investigating Walden's online doctoral programs because of "an increased number of complaints related to dissertations." The report also notes that Walden paid President Bill Clinton, its former honorary chancellor, $17.6 million over five years, before he stepped down last year ahead of his wife's presidential campaign.
In response to Thornhill's lawsuit, Walden President Jonathan Kaplan told NBC News that Walden has a "decades-long track record as one of the nation's leading universities committed to working professionals."
"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 [the Minnesota Office of Higher Education] represent well under 1/10th of 1 percent of Walden's students," Kaplan said.
Another student, Amos York, sued Walden last year over a data heist that allegedly exposed the online school's 800,000 students to identity theft.
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