Even After Its Demise, Ivy Bridge College Raises Questions About Accreditation

Paul Freedman, the former chief executive of Altius Education, says it and Tiffin U. were following the rules at the time, but then the regulatory environment changed. (Noah Berger for The Chronicle)

Paul Freedman, the former chief executive of Altius Education, says it and Tiffin U. were following the rules at the time, but then the regulatory environment changed. (Noah Berger for The Chronicle)

Accreditation matters played heavily into Altius Education’s dashed ambitions for Ivy Bridge College.

A document trail, annotated by The Chronicle, highlights the key events in the seven-year saga, which began with an entrepreneur’s dream and wound down under the cloud of a continuing federal investigation.

Several of the pundits who have weighed in on Ivy Bridge and Altius over the past few months have framed the tale starkly as innovator crushed by the old guard. See this from an reform advocate at the American Enterprise Institute, this from a publication called Xconomy, and this from BuzzFeed, for example. The BuzzFeed piece even went so far as to paint the “118-year-old” accrediting body, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, as out of touch by reminding readers that its president, Sylvia Manning, was a Victorian-literature scholar by academic training.

Yet even now, with Ivy Bridge closed, most of what was left of Altius sold, and the company’s partner in the joint venture, Tiffin University, trying to put the matter behind it, several questions concerning those accreditation matters continue to reverberate.

Did Ivy Bridge collapse because Tiffin didn’t keep its accreditor in the loop—or, in the more cynical view of Altius’s backers, didn’t kiss up enough—and if so, is that simply the fault of the university or a sign of the outsize power of accreditors?

More than a few people interviewed by The Chronicle over the past few weeks said they were surprised by the apparent distance between Tiffin and the Higher Learning Commission.

“I would have expected the folks at Tiffin to have a better relationship with their accreditor than it appears they had,” said Eric D. Darr, president of the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, an institution that is now experimenting with the learning-management system, Helix, that Altius created. Mr. Darr said his university participates as a peer reviewer on other accreditation visits and called that “a good way to build and maintain relationships.”

Paula Peinovich, president of the National Labor College—which created a now-defunct joint venture with the Penn Foster Education Group to develop an online college—said accreditor relations were a high priority for her.

“The second day on the job, I went up to Philadelphia and sat down with my liaison,” she said. “I kept them totally in the loop.”

Tiffin officials say they did keep their accreditors apprised. “We thought we were on very firm ground,” said the Ohio university’s president, Paul Marion, especially after the agency gave it such glowing feedback about Ivy Bridge in its 2010 re-accreditation.

Paul Freedman, who was chief executive of Altius, said Tiffin may be at fault, but he’s also heard from other colleges that describe their “regulatory strategy” as wining and dining the accreditors. For Ivy Bridge, he said, “not enough investment was made in personal relationships.”

Yet the idea that a college president would spend her second day on the job rushing off to see the accreditor—rather than, say, meeting with faculty members—”seems kind of funny to me,” he said. “That’s saying that the accreditors are the most important constituency.” He added,  “It’s funny that that seems like a reasonable expectation.”

Did Tiffin do enough to assert its control over Ivy Bridge?

Here again, the National Labor College example may be instructive. Ms. Peinovich, president of the Maryland institution, said that in its arrangement with Penn Foster, the college owned 51 percent of the joint venture and made a point of asserting that control even in nonacademic activities. (Tiffin owned just 20 percent of the venture that ran Ivy Bridge.) While Penn Foster was responsible for marketing to students and recruiting them to the distance-education programs, the college trained the admissions representatives and kept close watch on how they operated. “We listened in,” said Ms. Peinovich. “I had my son-in-law call in constantly.”

In its correspondence with the Higher Learning Commission, Tiffin officials repeatedly asserted that the university had control. Yet the commission said that Tiffin exhibited little evidence that it was overseeing Ivy Bridge.

David A. Bergeron, a former top official at the U.S. Department of Education, said Tiffin’s actions might speak louder than its words. If Tiffin officials really felt they were in control, “they didn’t show it by the way things proceeded,” he said. “I would not have given up that fast.”

Did Altius go accreditation shopping when it sought out a university partner in the North Central region, which at the time was almost notorious for accommodating arrangements like this one (and purchases of nonprofit colleges by for-profit investors)? If so, what’s to prevent others from pursuing a similar “region shopping” strategy today?

Mr. Freedman has said he chose Tiffin as a partner because he became familiar with it, and its fledgling entrepreneurial stance, while he was working in Ohio. That its accreditor was the Higher Learning Commission certainly didn’t hurt. “When we started, HLC was the obvious choice,” he said. “I’ll be honest, we didn’t look at a school that was in SACS.” (That’s another regional accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which was not known for approving those kinds of deals.)

But when the accreditor began facing scrutiny, in 2009, and Ms. Manning replaced Steven D. Crow, the commission’s posture toward joint ventures and conversions of nonprofits to for-profits changed.

Mr. Freedman and Altius’s investors say they were following the rules at the time, but then the regulatory environment changed.

Mr. Darr, president of the Harrisburg university, said he expected the commission’s actions on Altius would leave a chill. Investor-backed projects will probably steer clear of the HLC, “at least for the moment,” he said. That remains to be seen: A joint venture between the giant global higher-education company Laureate Education and the Thunderbird School of Global Management is up for accreditation review in February.

Meanwhile, other new kinds of partnerships are now pending before other regional accreditors. “The playing field is uneven,” said Mr. Darr.

How much did the political pressure that Tiffin’s accreditor had been under affect its attitude toward Ivy Bridge?

That’s a hard one to pin down. While Ms. Manning says the facts of the situation drove the accreditor’s actions, several people interviewed by The Chronicle believe that the commission’s tough stance toward Altius (and before that, its decision to block the sale of Dana College to an investor group) can’t be separated from the scrutiny the agency has been under.

“Paul was close to the line,” and the accreditors are running scared, said one college official who followed Altius’s progress closely but asked not to be quoted by name. The commission “is particularly sensitive about it because they got slapped a few years ago.”

In 2009 and 2010, the Higher Learning Commission came under fire from the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Education for what that agency called lax standards, and then it, and Ms. Manning, faced scrutiny from Congress over the same issue.

“I’m sure she didn’t enjoy sitting in front of that Congressional committee,” said Ms. Peinovich.

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