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The shuttering of Ivy Bridge College could dump cold water on the online aspirations of some colleges, particularly ones that prefer to play it safe with their regional accreditor.  

A growing number of colleges are teaming up with outside firms to ramp up their online offerings. Those unaccredited partners include companies like Academic Partnerships, 2U, Udacity, Coursera and Altius Education, which jointly managed Ivy Bridge.

It’s up to accrediting agencies to decide where to draw the line on the outsourcing of parts of academic programs. Ivy Bridge apparently went too far, at least according to standards set by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.

Since 2008 Tiffin University, a private nonprofit college located in Ohio, has run the college with Altius, a Bay Area-based education technology company. Ivy Bridge is a fully online institution that offers associate degrees.

Last week, however, Altius announced that the commission had directed Tiffin to discontinue the partnership.

“Tiffin University must disengage from our business relationship with Altius,” Paul Marion, Tiffin’s president, confirmed in an interview.

The university received a letter from commission officials on July 25 calling for a halt to new student enrollments in three days, Marion said. The partnership with Altius must be dissolved by the end of September. Students who enrolled prior to July 28 will be able to finish their studies this term, which ends in seven weeks.

Tiffin successfully earned reaffirmation of its accreditation status in 2010. The relatively new Ivy Bridge was part of that review and apparently not problematic to the regional accrediting agency at the time. However, the accreditor raised questions about the partnership during the last year, according to Marion. He said the commission had concerns about the level of influence Altius, a private company, had over Ivy Bridge.

The inquiry was triggered by policies related to the outsourcing of academics, officials at Tiffin and Altius said. Those standards require member institutions to seek prior approval for any contract that outsources a portion of educational programs to an unaccredited institution -- one that is not accredited by an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education -- or to a corporation or other entity.

The commission must grant approval to arrangements where 25 to 50 percent of an educational program is outsourced. The bar is higher for those that outsource more than 50 percent. Those contracts "will receive intense scrutiny and will not be approved by the commission except in exceptional circumstances," according to the policy.

Ivy Bridge ran afoul of a standard that was instituted in 2009, according to Sylvia Manning, the commission's president. That policy governs a program's "change of control, structure or organization." She said the accreditor first became aware of the scope of Ivy Bridge's operation last year. It then raised questions about the college's structure, after conducting a site visit in March. (NOTE: This paragraph has been added to an earlier version of the article to reflect new information received from the commission.)

Tiffin sent a voluminous document defending the program in response to the commission’s concerns.

“We thought we made a very persuasive case,” Marion said.

The commission didn’t buy it, however.

“HLC decided they didn’t like the relationship and were unwilling to work with Tiffin to make the changes needed,” said Paul Freedman, the founder and CEO of Altius.

Several commission officials were traveling Friday and could not be reached for comment.

However, Manning said via e-mail that Ivy Bridge's problems extended beyond its ownership structure. She said the college had "very poor academic performance." And the commission told The Toledo Blade that a review of the program led to concerns about course quality, academic rigor and student retention.

Marion, however, had a different take. He defended Ivy Bridge's track record, particularly on student satisfaction, and said the accreditor had praised the program in the past. He declined to share the commission’s July letter, at least for now. But the bottom line, he said, was that the commission was uncomfortable with aspects of Ivy Bridge’s business and governance structure.

“It didn’t have anything to do with the quality of the program,” he said. “It’s purely a judgment on their part about the business relationship.”

The commission also did not release the letter, per its typical approach of not making public documents related to accreditation reviews. So until the documents become public, it's impossible to say which version of events is right.

Seven Weeks

Most Ivy Bridge students are working adults. Courses offered through the college last seven weeks and tuition rates are about $6,700 per year for full-time students. One of Ivy Bridge’s selling points was student services, such as free tutoring and a “personal success coach” it assigns to each student.

The college also had transfer agreements in place with 154 four-year colleges, allowing its graduates to “seamlessly” transfer to bachelor’s degree programs at institutions ranging from the nearby University of Toledo to several Kaplan University campuses and George Mason University.

The partnership between Tiffin and Altius had received praise from some who called it an innovative way for a small private college (total enrollment: 6,800) to increase its online reach without sacrificing academic quality.

For example, Altius last year received a $300,000 grant under the Next Generation Learning Challenges program, which is managed by Educause and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The grant was for “breakthrough” online and blended academic programs, according to a news release, which “significantly improve postsecondary access, persistence, completion and affordability, without compromising the quality of learning outcomes.”

Ivy Bridge enrolled 1,500 students in the most recent term. The college’s growth had been flat in recent years. And Marion said Tiffin was not currently turning a profit through the relationship with Altius. However, the university enrolled only 52 students in its online associate degree programs prior to Ivy Bridge’s creation. The program was a pipeline for transfer students and also brought visibility to Tiffin.

"We didn’t have the money, as a small private college without a big endowment, to ramp up a program like this and do it in a high-quality way,” said Marion.

The university and Altius are scrambling to help students transfer to other institutions -- either to complete their associate degrees or to enroll in bachelor’s degree tracks. But Freedman said the timeline to end the partnership is so short that it is likely to have a “devastating effect” on some students.

Students posted angry and frustrated messages in response to a post on Ivy Bridge’s Facebook page. Some said they were worried about finishing their associate degree or being able to transfer to other institutions.

Where Is the Line?

Ivy Bridge is one of many emerging partnerships between accredited institutions and education technology companies. And the commission’s action might give pause to others.

Kevin Kinser, an associate professor of education at the State University of New York at Albany who studies for-profits, said colleges and companies need more information about what might be a red flag to accreditors.

“We don’t know what the limits are in these kinds of contractual agreements,” he said. “This is something that a lot of institutions are taking a look at.”

Accreditors have in recent years faced more pressure to take a hard look at the role of private companies in higher education. In particular, lawmakers and regulators have for the most part shut down the practice of for-profit chains buying struggling private colleges that come with regional accreditation.

Some see partnerships between nonprofit colleges and for-profits companies to create online programs as the next iteration of this approach. But the commission's move with Ivy Bridge could have a chilling effect on those arrangements, too.

Marion said accreditors have been “caught in the middle” during debates over for-profits.

“Over the last year or so they have, I guess you could say, tightened up,” he said of the commission. As for the partnership with Ivy Bridge, Marion said: “I really don’t know why ours got singled out.”

Tiffin had sought to spin off Ivy Bridge and for the program to earn its own, independent regional accreditation. But the university failed in that bid.

Freedman called regional accreditation the biggest barrier to “necessary innovation” in higher education. “The schools operate in great fear of risking retribution, or of pushing the envelope,” he said.

Smaller colleges are particularly cautious, said Freedman, because they lack the clout to push back on accreditors.

This was the second collaboration Tiffin and Altius dropped in recent months. In June they announced that Ivy Bridge would open up one of its courses to anyone for $50. The MOOC-style course, which was on how to succeed in college, would also be credit-bearing.

Tiffin and Altius postponed that plan a day later, citing concerns over accreditation.

Altius has other university partnerships in the works, however. The company announced last week that it would join with the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology to offer two new, fully online master’s of science degrees in the field of “big data.”

For his part, Marion said Tiffin had plenty of good reasons to sign on with Altius. The company picked up all of the startup costs for the college. He said Altius paid for structural designers and student support staff. Without that capital the university could not have created Ivy Bridge.

“Not everybody has the expertise or the money to get into online education,” Marion said.

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