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Accreditation at Risk

July 15, 2011

An online for-profit college in California that serves mostly military service members is on the verge of losing its regional accreditation, for failing to ensure that students transferring in had fulfilled their general education requirements and, more importantly, for failing to tell the accreditor about the problem.

At its meeting last month, the senior college commission of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges voted to end the accreditation of Trident University International by March unless the institution's officials can "demonstrate ... why its accreditation should not be terminated," the accrediting agency announced this week.

Trident, which was formerly known as TUI University and was Touro University's online arm until sold to a private equity firm in 2007, enrolls about 4,000 undergraduates and about that many graduate students, according to the Education Department, and most of its students transfer in having accumulated significant credits from military training and other institutions, with the goal of completing their bachelor's degrees at Trident.

But the Western accrediting agency found evidence of "previously unidentified deficiencies in Trident’s administrative systems that verify that each student has met general education requirements for an undergraduate degree," Nolan A. Miura, Trident's interim president and chief executive officer, said in an e-mail message. In an interview, Miura said that for a "small number of students," Trident was unable to affirm that the credits they had been awarded previously fulfilled Trident's degree requirements for general education.

"There was absolutely no intent behind the error," Miura said via e-mail.

That wasn't the biggest problem, though, at least in the eyes of officials at WASC. The accrediting agency had a team visit Trident in the spring, but no mention was made of the problem, Ralph S. Wolff, the agency's president, said in an interview Thursday. And in fact, "at no point did they disclose this" to us, Wolff said, noting that Western officials had learned about the issue "from a third party." The agency's Standard 1.9, he said, requires that institutions engage in "honest, open communication with WASC" and "inform WASC of material matters."

Members of the Western commission asked Trident officials about the problems with verifying gen ed credits when the university's officials appeared before the panel in June, but even then, "they could not tell us the scope of problem, even after having known about it for several months," Wolff said. Trident's lack of transparency and followup, he said, "raises serious academic and operational concerns."

Miura acknowledged via e-mail that "the noncompliance also resulted from the delay in identifying and notifying WASC of the issue." When pressed, he said that Trident officials had learned about the problems with its process for certifying credits from a group that helps service members continue their educations, and that "previous Trident management did not realize the extent of the problem and in retrospect should have immediately notified WASC when it was notified." He said the institution had "committed to instituting new policies and operational practices that will meet or exceed WASC’s standards, and to notify WASC immediately of any non-compliance issues in the future.”

It is not at all clear whether those promises will satisfy the Western agency, which like other accreditors is under significant scrutiny to prove that it is rigorously ensuring that students at its institutions are getting a meaningful education. The agency said its officials would conduct a special visit this fall to "evaluate Trident's progress in addressing the commission's concerns." But based on the commission's action in June, Western will terminate the institution's accreditation in March, Wolff said, "unless [it] can demonstrate to us that it has restored academic and operational integrity."

 

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