Bridgepoint Education, a for-profit higher education company, announced Tuesday that it has purchased the Franciscan University of the Prairies.
Franciscan, a Roman Catholic college founded in 1918 and known for most of its history as Mount St. Clare College, has faced financial difficulties in recent years. Enrollment is under 500 at the institution, which is located in Clinton, Iowa.
The college's name will now be changed to Ashford University.
Bridgepoint, which was founded in 1999, focuses on helping community college graduates earn bachelor's degrees, largely through distance education.
In an interview, Andrew Clark, the CEO of Bridgepoint, said that the company "has been seeking a university that we could acquire."
He said that the university's programs for undergraduates would continue and that no employees would lose their jobs. He said Bridgepoint was "committed absolutely" to staying in Clinton, Iowa. However, Clark said that Bridgepoint would work to expand two small graduate programs that Franciscan has offered online: a master's in education and a master's in education technology.
Clark declined to say how much his company paid for the college.
Like any college that changes control, the new institution will need to seek approval from its accreditor, the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. Clark said that he did not anticipate any problems.
However, the Iowa College Student Aid Commission announced that students at the renamed university would not be eligible for the agency's grants. Those grants go to Iowa residents attending nonprofit private colleges and for-profit institutions that operated in the state prior to 2003.
Officials of Franciscan could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
John V. Hartung, president of the Iowa Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, said he had heard about the sale and seen a business plan for the revamped college and was pleased by the expressions of support for continuing in Clinton.
Hartung said he was not shocked by Franciscan's difficulties, given that the Sisters of St. Francis, the order that founded the college, has been shrinking. He said that Franciscan was like many religious colleges that once were able to rely on clergy as an "intellectual endowment" to teach for little or no wages.
He said he didn't know what to expect now. "There's a big difference between a for-profit institution that is responsible to their stockholders. They are in business to make a profit," he said. "A not-for-profit independent institution is in business to provide educational service."
Said Hartung: "It's a new day. It will be interesting to see what kinds of educational services Bridgepoint brings."