Is Liberty University Online Targeting Pittsburgh Community Leaders?

Something of concern that I’ve noticed over the past years – an increasing number of regional community leaders have ties to Liberty University via the online school – folks pursuing higher degrees. This article from the New York Times and ProPublica lays out the reasons why that might be the case ($$) and it is concerning.

The real driver of growth at Liberty, it turns out, is not the students who attend classes in Lynchburg but the far greater number of students who are paying for credentials and classes that are delivered remotely, as many as 95,000 in a given year. By 2015, Liberty had quietly become the second-largest provider of online education in the United States, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, its student population surpassed only by that of University of Phoenix, as it tapped into the same hunger for self-advancement that Trump had with his own pricey Trump University seminars. Yet there was a crucial distinction: Trump’s university was a for-profit venture. (This month, a judge finalized a $25 million settlement for fraud claims against the defunct operation.) Liberty, in contrast, is classified as a nonprofit, which means it faces less regulatory scrutiny even as it enjoys greater access to various federal handouts.

I recently noticed that a local mental health center has hired a therapist to work with LGBTQ folks who has a degree from this school. For those who may not know, this is an institution that supports conversion therapy/ministry among many other outrageous Jerry Falwell opinions. That’s something I’ve been bringing to the attention of LGBTQ leaders. (This person’s clinical degree is from another institution, one the organization refused to divulge and they do not list on their social media public information.) 

But she’s not the only person with this affiliation. It is such a shocking contrast to almost any other educational institution, that it leaps off the page when it is listed in someone’s biography. And it is one reason now, I do take the time to look at the staff Facebook/LinkedIN pages to see if people are proud of this affiliation.

The article describes a hot mess of a diploma mill where the greed of these Christians violates their own principles as well as the rights and dignity of their prospective students.

The two recruiters also said they were told not to mention Liberty’s Christian orientation until people agree to apply, when this fact is made clear in the user agreement they sign online. It also becomes clear at the moment that the recruiters sign up students for their first classes, typically an orientation class and three required Bible studies classes. Students often can’t transfer credits for these courses to other colleges, which deters many from dropping out: Leaving L.U.O. without signing up for more courses would mean wasting the money spent on the first four.

In my mind and in the court of common sense, there is a clear distinction between faith-based institutions like Duquesne or Seton Hill and these incredibly rightwing religious groups. That distinction is in part due to the accreditation and professionalism of the universities. You may think they are all in the same category which is fine. But in our rat race to get Masters Degrees for community work, we need to be incredibly careful that we are not giving places like Liberty University access to our under-served neighbors.

Gaumer, who now works at Randolph College in Lynchburg, said the steep drop-off in quality from the traditional college to the online courses was both openly acknowledged among Liberty faculty and not fully reckoned with. The reason was plain, he said: Everyone knew that L.U.O. was subsidizing the physical university. “The motivation behind the growth seems to be almost entirely economic, because it’s not as if the education is getting any better,” he said.

Here in Pittsburgh we’ve experienced the harm caused by for-profit institutions like EDMC especially with schools like the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. There’s a lot of pressure by non-profits and funders for people to obtain masters degrees to have a career trajectory in human services and community based work. Pursuing an affordable masters degree while balancing a job, family, and financial constraints is difficult under the best of circumstances. To do this so you can earn $30,000 versus $23,000 is barely cost efficient over the course of a career. But to do so without actually being educated about your field of study, to basically buy a diploma, is a terrible tradeoff.

To summarize my concerns,

  1. Liberty University Online is not reputable or credible as an education experience. So people are being ripped off.
  2. Liberty University in general is closely affiliated with a rigorous anti-LGBTQ, anti-woman, regressive, extreme Christian right world view that permeates the coursework (or lack thereof) So people are being indoctrinated and/or having their personal credibility used to legitimize this world view when they go out into the world. I don’t think any person should have to make that compromise for an education and I don’t think someone who does should have access to other vulnerable people.
  3. Liberty University thinks LGBTQ people need to be cured so no one affiliated with that school should be hired by LGBTQ organizations, period. It is certainly possible someone sees the light, denounces their past and seeks out credible post-graduate education to offset the harm. But that person more than likely will not proudly list their support of Liberty University, Chick-Fil-A, and Peace, Love & Little Donuts on their social media profile. That’s is not a person who has seen the light.
  4. I believe the extreme right tries to infiltrate the left. We’ve seen that with everything from ACORN to Planned Parenthood to the attempt to trick the Washington Post. We can’t rule out that this is a tactic in that war. That’s not an inherently paranoid thought, even though it seems ludicrous. Would someone really try to infiltrate LGBTQ organizations? When I asked one staffing person, she said that they can’t discriminate based on religion. That’s not quite true. You can make a decision based on the education credentials.

I’m not blaming individuals who get the LUO degree. I’m blaming the right wing, Liberty University, all online schools, the culture that puts someone $40k in debt to get a $2000 raise, and all of us. We are not being vigilant.

But, Wahl said, once you knew about the thousands of people far from Lynchburg who funded this splendor, it was hard to take your mind off them, and off the faith with which they signed up for L.U.O. “You get a phone call,” he said, “and it’s God telling you, ‘I’ll give you an education.’ “

 When we spoke before my visit, Wahl raved about the campus: “It’s beautiful,” he said. Then he added: “And it’s funded by the online program that’s sold to people who can’t really afford college.”

This is a long piece to read, but it is important.

You can read it at the New York Times and at Salon.