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A Senate panel is investigating a tiny small Iowa college that has seen unprecedented growth in the past six years. Ashford University, now a for-profit college, and its parent company–Bridgepoint Education Inc., was the focus a March hearing by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Representatives from Bridgepoint did not attend the hearing.
Only six years ago, Ashford University was a near-bankrupt college managed by a group of Franciscan nuns in rural Iowa. Fewer than 400 students were enrolled in the college in 2005. Ashford was purchased by Bridgepoint that same year and now has more than 76,000 students enrolled. The Senate hearing focused on how an online college could grow to mega size proportions, practically overnight. “Wouldn’t that kind of massive increase trigger some sort of fundamental review?” asked Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR).
Sylvia Manning, the president of the Chicago-based Higher Learning Commission which accredits Ashford, testified before the committee that the commission was “a bit behind the curve” when the group decided in 2005 to carry over the accreditation from the tiny Franciscan University to the new owner, Bridgepoint. “When it was acquired by Bridgepoint, suddenly Bridgepoint was accredited and it grew this superstructure of this enormous online institution,” said Manning, who was not at the Higher Learning Commission when the transfer took place. “Because we had pretty much not seen that kind of thing before, we didn’t have the tools that we now have either to predict that or control that.”
Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), who has been a champion of for students and has led a number of investigations into the for-profit college industry, questioned the accreditation process. He points out that the accreditation missed such a massive growth and a large dropout rate. Harkin pointed out that the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) accredits Ashford, without apparently questioning that the school employs more than 1,700 recruiters to pursue new enrollments but only has one career placement employee. The committee also released information, based on internal documents from Bridgepoint, which revealed that the company spends four times as much money on recruiting students than educating them. This is the big business of education.
The committee also questioned how the HLC found in a recent Ashford evaluation that “sufficient faculty and support resources are provided to deliver a quality learning experience for students,” despite the fact that 65 percent of four-year students withdraw from Ashford within two years of enrolling. Manning responded that she had not seen the dropout numbers that the committee referenced. “If indeed it turns out that those are the data, and students didn’t complete their programs, I think those numbers are irreconcilable,” she said. Manning went on to note that the accrediting body has made changes in recent years, changes that now would detect the huge growth that Ashford saw.
Sen. Harkin stated that the current accreditation agencies are not designed for larger for-profit colleges that are now springing up all over the country. “The question for any accrediting agency is, ‘Are they really equipped to oversee the quality of a billion-dollar multi-state corporation?’ I don’t think so,” Harkin said. “We either have to change the accrediting agencies and what they do and how they do it, or set up some new kind of regulatory framework in how they deal with these multi-state corporations.”