Accreditor Defends Its Halt-Enrollment Order to an Online Program of Tiffin U.

August 05, 2013

The accrediting body that last month ordered Tiffin University to halt enrolling students in the Ivy Bridge College program it operates with a for-profit company said on Monday that the online associate-degree program had had problems with academic rigor, student retention, and the quality of its course content.

The program, a joint venture of Tiffin and Altius Education, also had little, if any, meaningful academic or financial oversight from Tiffin, the accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, said.

Despite the college's name and its stated goal of providing transfer opportunities to students, Ivy Bridge "was a bridge to nowhere—and it was not part of Tiffin," Sylvia Manning, president of the Higher Learning Commission, said in an interview on Monday.

Altius Education's chief executive, Paul Freedman, said that the commission's criticism of the program was unjustified and that the accreditor was going public with that information now to justify its "rapid, myopic march toward shutting it down."

The commission's action, in an order that took effect on July 28, has also prompted speculation among higher-education observers on Twitter and other forums about the rationale for the action.

Technically, the accreditor's action was not made on issues of academic quality. The commission ordered the halt in enrollment because it had previously determined that Ivy Bridge needed to be specially approved by the commission, and then Tiffin decided in May not to pursue its application for that approval. That, said Ms. Manning, left the commission no choice but to order Ivy Bridge closed because it was not covered by Tiffin's accreditation.

Disputes Over Rules and Timing

Last week, after Tiffin announced the enrollment halt on Ivy Bridge's Facebook page, university and Altius officials said they had been snagged by a 2011 change in commission rules.

On Monday, however, Ms. Manning disputed that, saying the rule at issue had been in effect since 2009. (There was a change in the rule in 2011, she said, but it wasn't relevant to this situation.) The 2009 rule concerns the role of outside parties in joint ventures like the one Altius and Tiffin formed in 2008.

The joint venture was already well under way in 2010, when Tiffin was reaccredited. But Ms. Manning asserted that transactions between Altius and Tiffin after 2010 should have triggered Tiffin to come back to the commission for additional approval.

"What it was by 2012 wasn't what it was in 2008," she said.

In 2012 an anonymous tipster contacted the commission—a move that prompted the commission to advise Tiffin that it needed to apply for approval under the 2009 rule governing "change of control, structure, or organization."

Mr. Freedman disputed Ms. Manning's description. He said the fundamental arrangement between Altius and Tiffin did not change during that period.

Review Team's Findings

As part of a review of that application, the commission sent a visiting team in March 2013, and it found, in Ms. Manning's words, "serious academic deficiencies." What's more, she said, "we didn't find Tiffin faculty exercising the same of kind of oversight over the programs at Ivy Bridge" as they did over other Tiffin programs. "Nobody on the Tiffin faculty actually has Ivy Bridge on their radar."

Mr. Freedman said the review team's assessment was in many places superficial. How it measured retention, he said, actually penalized Ivy Bridge for students who transferred to four-year colleges. And among the courses that one evaluator had found "thin," he said, was an English class that has been awarded a grant by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to be converted into an adaptive-learning format.

Tiffin received the review team's report in May, and then, just before the June meeting of the commission's Board of Trustees, Tiffin withdrew its application.

According to a three-paragraph statement the commission issued on Monday, Tiffin was then advised to either apply for consideration in October, with additional information "to demonstrate the quality of the program," or end its relationship with Altius as soon as possible.

"Tiffin chose to end the relationship," the commission's statement said.

The commission also said the information developed as part of the review remains preliminary—and therefore not public—because it pertains to an application that is no longer active.