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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.

The biggest problem identified by the accreditor and its review team was the university’s rapid growth, which has made the publicly traded Bridgepoint a high flyer among investors. Ashford enrolls more than 90,000 students, up from 10,000 just five years ago.

“The challenges that this rapid growth and enrollment model present to management, quality and student success cannot be overstated,” said Ralph A. Wolff, WASC’s president, in a letter to Elizabeth Tice, Ashford’s president and CEO. “Although the team found that Ashford has sought to keep pace by building its infrastructure to support this large number of online students, many of its promising initiatives are recent, some only undertaken within the last year.”

For example, the report by a (comparatively star-studded) team that reviewed Ashford’s bid found that 128,000 students withdrew from the university over the last five years, a time during which Ashford enrolled 241,000 new students, meaning that more than 50 percent dropped out.

“This level of attrition is, on its face, not acceptable,” Wolff wrote.

The site visit team said that Ashford’s students, many of whom are not academically prepared to succeed in college, might not be getting the support they need at the university. They also singled out Ashford’s emphasis on boosting enrollment versus investment in academics.

For example, Ashford employed only 56 full-time faculty members in 2011, with 2,458 part-time faculty members and 875 instructional staff, the report said. (Since then, the university reported hiring 43 new full-time faculty members.) As for student support services, Ashford has 14 writing specialists and 38 instructional specialists on staff, both inadequate numbers according to the accreditor. In contrast, the university employed 2,305 staff members in enrollment services.

“The team was concerned that this does not suggest an optimum alignment of institutional resources with stated mission and priorities,” according to the report.

'Anchor Identity' in Iowa

WASC was not critical, however, of Ashford’s residential campus in Iowa, which has been a poster child for the purchase of struggling nonprofit colleges by for-profits.

The accreditor had nothing but praise for Ashford’s “on-ground” location, saying the university had made a substantial investment in improving the campus and supporting its residential students.

“As the team noted, the Iowa campus serves as an ‘anchor identity’ for thousands of online students and is highly valued and supported,” Wolff said.

That campus, which enrolled 973 students last fall, is a former religious college that Bridgepoint purchased in 2005. As part of the deal, the company got the college’s regional accreditation, through the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.

Critics have denounced the purchase of a college’s accreditation as being like a taxi medallion. And Bridgepoint, with its sparsely attended Iowa campus and rapid online growth, became a symbol of the perceived excess of for-profits. Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat and antagonist of the industry, has been particularly hot about Bridgepoint.

The Higher Learning Commission in 2010 rejected similar purchases of two struggling private colleges by for-profits, signaling a less favorable view of the industry -- a shift that played a significant role in Bridgepoint's decision to seek accreditation elsewhere.

Ashford officials were “disappointed” by WASC’s decision, they said in a written statement. The university now faces a difficult dance to keep its accreditation, a crucial step because its students would not be able to receive federal financial aid if the university no longer held regional accreditation.

The university said it plans to appeal the WASC ruling. It will also participate in a reapplication process, by submitting a report in response to the decision. The commission permits a follow-up site visit, as early as next spring, and could consider the reapplication by June 2013.

In the meantime, Ashford will need to work on its status with the Higher Learning Commission. Bridgepoint said in a corporate filing that the university intends to maintain that accreditation until it can be transferred to WASC. That might not be easy. The Midwestern accreditor advised the university that it has until the end of the year to demonstrate that it is in compliance with requirements that it have a "substantial presence" in the region.

“It is expected that the institution would need to consolidate a significant portion of its educational administration and activity, business operations and executive and administrative leadership” in the 19-state region the Higher Learning Commission oversees, according to a Bridgepoint corporate filing. Without that consolidation, the commission could give Ashford the boot.

In the wake of WASC's decision, Bridgepoint's share price tumbled Monday by 34 percent.

While Ashford was shot down in its initial effort to look westward, WASC took another action Monday that was a win for a for-profit. (See related article today.)

The commission allowed UniversityNow, a for-profit that runs the competency-based New Charter University, to purchase Patten University, a struggling religious college located in Oakland. UniversityNow also got Patten’s regional accreditation as part of the deal. Sound familiar?

Concern about Academic Rigor

WASC was under plenty of pressure to get its review of Ashford right. Harkin and other for-profit critics were watching closely, as were the industry’s advocates and investors.

The commission put together a team of heavy hitters to handle its site visit. Leading the 12-member team was Stanley O. Ikenberry, a professor and president emeritus of the University of Illinois and former president of the American Council on Education, the main association of college presidents. Others included Jane Wellman, an expert on higher education finance and executive director of the National Association of System Heads, and Sally Johnstone, vice president for academic advancement at Western Governors University.

The group’s 73-page final report did not give a thumbs-down to Ashford, leaving that judgment to WASC -- a common approach in regional accreditation. 

“Whether or not the team report contains a recommendation with regard to accreditation status varies from accreditor to accreditor,” said Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, in a written statement. “In any event, the authority to make the final accreditation decision rests with the accrediting commission.”

However, the team described a wide range of problems its members found at Ashford during a review that included five days of visits to Iowa and San Diego. And because the issues were in multiple realms, the commission chose to deny the university’s bid.

The report praises Ashford and Bridgepoint for their cooperation with what was described as an intensive review. It also said Ashford’s faculty and staff are dedicated to its mission, including affordability and accessibility.

“The leadership of the institution is mission-focused, energized and passionate about the purposes of the institution,” according to the report.

Ashford has begun a series of initiatives to better cope with its rapid growth, the team found. But that work is too new to judge, and its leaders are green.

“While there is excitement about the new efforts, the atmosphere appeared at times to verge on frenetic. The team observed a lack of organizational maturity and capacity to take the institution to the next level,” the report said. “Partly, this concern regarding capacity stems from the narrow range of experience demonstrated by the staff and in part from the limited academic leadership depth available to the massive online programs.”

As for academics, Ashford had conducted systematic reviews of only six of its 80 academic programs. And the commission found that the university had not thoroughly assessed the quality of its online course offerings. As a result, the commission said it had “serious concerns about the rigor of coursework, which varied from course to course and was not always at the appropriate level.”

WASC posted the full site review on its website today, as part of a pathbreaking effort by the agency to increase its transparency (which is likely to put pressure on other accreditors to follow suit). While public colleges often make their accreditation reviews available online, regional accreditors do not. As such, the review provides a rare glimpse into the inner workings of a private institution, one that is both large and controversial.

The review also included a survey of Ashford’s students, yielding a response rate of more than 30 percent and a largely positive view of the university. (Survey results are available at the end of the team's report.)

Harkin said in a statement that he was pleased with WASC’s “careful and thoughtful” review of Ashford. “I continue to have serious concerns about whether Bridgepoint Education and their school Ashford University – along with other for-profit schools – are providing a quality education to their student population, the majority of which are enrolled online.”

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