Ashford’s Accreditation Problem

Ashford University, the for-profit college owned by Bridgepoint Education Inc., will not receive accreditation has had its accreditation application denied. That’s according to the Monday decision of Western Association of Schools and Colleges, the regional accreditor. The company apparently hoped to earn regional accreditation through WASC its 2005 purchase of the Franciscan University of the Prairies, a financially struggling Catholic college in Clinton Iowa.

For the last decade this has been a common tactic of companies operating for-profit colleges: buy up a struggling regular college, and then use its accreditation to expand online programs.

This isn’t going to work for Bridgeport. According to an article by Paul Fain at Inside Higher Ed:

The Western Association of Schools and Colleges dealt a stinging blow to Bridgepoint Education Inc. on Monday by rejecting the for-profit’s accreditation bid for its Ashford University. The decision could mean regional accreditors will take a more assertive role in the debate over for-profit higher education.

Ashford fell short in several broad areas, according to the association, including its lack of a “sufficient core” of full-time faculty members, large numbers of students who drop out and questionable academic rigor in some areas.

Perhaps the biggest problem was the company was just growing really, really fast. Ashford now has 90,000 students. It had about 10,000 in 2007. How was it doing that?

Part of the way it did this, and part of the reason Western Association of Schools and Colleges seems to have denied the institution its seal of approval, had to do with its staffing.

According to the article, Ashford employed only 56 full-time faculty members in 2011. The institution had only 14 writing specialists and 38 instructional specialists for those tens of thousands of students. Oddly, however, the institution had 2,305 staff members in “enrollment services.” That means the people in charge of finding and recruiting people to attend this open-enrollment school.

Regionally accredited colleges are academically oriented. Nationally accredited schools are vocational or career colleges. For-profit colleges are virtually always the latter but by purchasing traditional institutions with regional accreditation they could immediately qualify for more federal financial aid and, thus, vastly expand online programs.

New colleges can’t generally receive financial aid for two years, but by purchasing existing colleges, for-profit companies can immediately take advantage of the aid. Normally accreditation takes about five years and accreditors look seriously at academic rigor and “teaching, learning, service and scholarship,” but by purchasing a regular college vocational schools could avoid all of that and simply rake in the cash.

Regional accreditation is generally more attractive because, while both types of accreditation confer eligibility for federal financial aid, regional accreditation means students can earn bachelor’s degrees, transfer academic credits across colleges, and have their diplomas accepted by employers and graduate schools.

This decision indicates that perhaps accreditors are in the future going to be more critical of for-profit schools and their attempts to exploit accreditation.

For some struggling schools, of course, the promise of additional funds may continue to be very tempting. If the company buying isn’t assured that it will be able to take advantage of the federal student aid bonanza, however, the process won’t work without some scrutiny. That’s probably just as well. For-profit colleges, whether regionally accredited or not, enroll about 10 percent of American college students. Such schools account for almost half of the country’s student loan defaults, however.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer