2 For-Profit Universities Get Good News From Accreditors

July 11, 2013

Two of the nation's biggest for-profit-college companies, the Apollo Group and Bridgepoint Education, reported good news from their accreditors on Wednesday.

Bridgepoint announced that its Ashford University had received initial accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, one of the nation's six regional accrediting bodies.

And Apollo reported that its University of Phoenix had escaped being placed on probation by its regional accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, which renewed the 287,500-student university's accreditation for 10 more years while placing it "on notice." Notice is a status less serious than probation.

Bridgepoint's announcement marked a significant turnaround for Ashford, which was denied initial accreditation by the Western Association one year ago. In a report then, the association cited high turnover of students at the largely online college, a vastly inadequate number of full-time faculty members and student-support staff members, and inconsistent quality and rigor in the curriculum. It also voiced concerns about Ashford's independence from Bridgepoint and its financial viability.

Ashford had applied to the Western Association after coming under pressure from its original accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission, which had accredited the university since it was acquired by Bridgepoint in 2005 from a small Roman Catholic college in eastern Iowa.

Ashford's location potentially put it out of compliance with the Higher Learning Commission's "substantial presence" policy, which requires that a majority of a college's administrative and business operations be located in the agency's 19-state region, along with at least one campus. While Ashford has the Iowa campus, its online enrollment is far larger, and most of its operations are based at Bridgepoint's offices in San Diego.

Also, a few days after the Western Association denied Ashford's initial application last summer, the Higher Learning Commission notified Bridgepoint that Ashford was under "special monitoring" status and would have to report on ways it intended to improve its academic operations.

In September the company announced that it was cutting about 450 admissions-staff members, out of more than 2,000, and reassigning 400 employees to work in student support and a new "department of student inquiry," which "will work with prospective students to ensure they are sufficiently prepared for the demands of a university education."

The following month, Bridgepoint hired Richard L. Pattenaude, chancellor emeritus of the University of Maine system, to be president of Ashford. Mr. Pattenaude was previously chairman of the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, another of the regional accrediting agencies.

In a written statement on Wednesday, the company touted the reform measures and said that the extra scrutiny from the Western Associaton had "proved to be a beneficial endeavor that elevated Ashford University as an educator and institution."

The accrediting team "found an institution that has been fundamentally transformed and whose culture has been changed in significant ways, including a shift from a market-driven approach to an institution committed to student retention and success," the company wrote, quoting from the accreditor's final report.

Relief at the U. of Phoenix

The "on notice" status for Phoenix, which could last for up to two years, signals that the university could be on course to lose its accreditation unless it remedies concerns raised by the Higher Learning Commission. Still, the accreditor's action was welcome news to university leaders.

A peer-review team recommended in February that the university be placed on probation. But in May a second set of evaluators, after meeting with university officials, recommended the notice status, citing concerns about governance, student assessment, and research and scholarship.

The governance issues relate to the university's degree of independence from its parent company, the Apollo Group. The faculty issues concern whether those teaching at the doctoral level "have a record of recognized scholarship, creative endeavor, or achievement in practice commensurate with doctoral expectations."

On June 27 the commission's Board of Trustees voted to place the institution on notice, citing the same three concerns.

The board also placed Western International University, a much smaller institution also owned by Apollo, on notice. Western International had also faced the threat of probation, and its leaders also met with the second set of evaluators.

The notice status for Western International is based on similar governance concerns, as well as concerns about whether its faculty members have relevant academic credentials.

The universities have until late next year to report back to the commission on how they have acted to resolve its concerns.

Accrediting teams will return to both campuses early in 2015 to evaluate compliance with the findings of those reports and to recommend whether the notice status can be lifted. Until then, each institution must mention the notice status whenever it refers to its accreditation, a requirement that the company acknowledged could adversely affect its business.

In addition to the problems that prompted the formal sanctions for Phoenix, the commission noted in its letter that it remained concerned about the university's student-retention and graduation rates, its student-loan default rate, and policies related to how it awards course credit.